Researchers seek test for age discrimination in workplace

New York TimesJuly 27, 2013 

AGE BIAS WORKPLACE 3

In an undated handout photo, three different actors, a 75-, 45- and 25-year old, play a character in a video testing age discrimination during a study. Princeton researchers found a way to measure age discrimination that specifically older people face in a study to be published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

MICHAEL NORTH — NYT

It turns out that a young Max and a middle-aged Max can get away with saying things that an old Max cannot.

At least that’s the conclusion of a new study by Princeton researchers aimed at measuring age discrimination, one of the toughest forms of workplace bias to prove.

The subjects of the experiment – 137 Princeton undergraduates – were shown a video of a man who would be their partner in a trivia contest. His name was Max, he was white, neither handsome nor ugly, wore a checked shirt and said he was from Hamilton, N.J.

What the students did not know was that there were actually three versions of Max, played by different actors, one 25, one 45 and one 75.

Each Max adhered to the same script with one exception: When describing himself, half of the time Max said he was the kind of person to share his wealth with relatives (the compliant Max), and the other half of the time Max said he felt no obligation to share (the assertive Max).

The students were then asked their opinion of Max. For those who saw the 25- or 45-year-old Max, it made no difference whether he was compliant or assertive. But students who saw the 75-year-old Max gave the assertive Max a high negative rating.

The results, soon to be published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, illustrate the subtle bias that older men and women may face in the workforce.

“If you want to be an aging gray panther and speak your mind to your manager, that’s fine,” said Susan Fiske, a Princeton professor and a co-author of the study with Michael North, who recently completed his Ph.D. “But expect consequences.”

Chasing age discrimination

There is little doubt that such discrimination exists. When an older man or woman is laid off, typically he or she takes two to six months longer to find a new job than it takes younger workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the new job is likely to pay considerably less.

During the recent recession, many unemployed older people told a similar story. They sent in their résumés and got called for an interview, but when they walked in, potential employers saw their white hair, and that was it.

Feeling discrimination is one thing; proving it another.

“It’s simply harder to establish,” said David Neumark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Winning an age discrimination lawsuit has become much harder since a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case, Gross v. FBL Financial Services. Before that, the employee had to show that age was a factor contributing to the layoff. Now, the employee has to show that age was the determining factor leading to the layoff, a much tougher standard.

“Plaintiffs’ attorneys have told us that they will not take age cases anymore because of the Gross decision,” says Laurie McCann, an attorney with AARP.

Baby boomers

The older generation, those born from 1946 to 1964, accounts for the fastest-growing segment of workplace discrimination claims. In 2012, 22,875 people filed age claims with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, compared with 15,875 in 1997. That represents 23 percent of all individuals filing claims in 2012, versus 19 percent in 1997. At the same time, the percentage of people filing race claims has decreased to 33 percent of all claimants, from 36 percent; it has held steady at 30 percent for sex discrimination.

With age discrimination claims on the rise, a growing number of academics are undertaking research projects aimed at better identifying it.

In 2010, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation began a “Working Longer” project, which has awarded 66 research grants focused on age discrimination, including the Princeton study. Kathleen E. Christensen, the program director, says it was spurred by a graying population that will be healthier and stay in the workforce longer.

“Anything that involves baby boomers assumes greater significance just because of the sheer numbers,” she said.

One grantee, Sarah von Schrader, a Cornell research associate, says more than 60 percent of equal employment complaints are related to job dismissals; only 10 percent involve hiring bias, which, she says, is the most difficult of age cases to document.

Counting résumés

Joanna Lahey, an associate professor at Texas A&M, has created an innovative – though limited – audit model for calculating age bias. In a 2005 study, she sent out 4,000 résumés to businesses in Boston and St. Petersburg, Fla., for fictional job applicants from 35 to 62. The applications were for entry-level fields like data processing and fast-food service – jobs requiring little work experience. The applicants were all women since employers might plausibly assume an older woman “has been at home taking care of the family.”

Lahey found that a younger applicant was 40 percent more likely to be called for an interview than someone 50 or older. In Boston, the younger person needed to send out 19 résumés to get an interview. For older workers, it took 27 résumés. In Florida, the comparable numbers were 16 versus 23 résumés.

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