Age discrimination in a recession

It might come as a jolt to some, but the oldest millennials – those born in 1981 – are turning 40 this year. With that birthday, they become eligible to file lawsuits against employers who discriminate on the basis of age.

At first blush, it might seem a bit early for 40-year-olds to worry about age discrimination, but this form of discrimination tends to become more pronounced during recessions (like the one the nation is mired in now), when at the beginning of the downturn employers often have to choose which employees to keep and which to lay off. And again as the recession fades, as businesses decide which workers to bring back.

In addition, research shows age discrimination is already affecting the careers of some millennial women.

Discrimination at 40?

“Most people aren’t going to face age discrimination at 40, but there will be some women who will be facing age discrimination by then,” said Tulane University economist Patrick Button, an expert on the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and its effects.

Button was part of a research group that sent employers more than 40,000 résumés and totaled the responses by age.

According to a Washington Post article, 50-year-old women received “significantly fewer responses than their younger peers,” while 50-year-old men “seemed to face no age penalty.”

By 65, “job-seekers of both genders saw a sharp drop in callbacks.”

More gender differences

Economist Joanna Lahey’s research on how age discrimination affects the genders will soon be published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. It finds the approval rate of women’s résumés takes a dive at age 36, while approval ratings for men don’t substantially decline until they’re in their 50s.

Lahey also found an exception to the age discrimination rule. For Black women and men, disapproval of their résumés was highest before they turned 40. Afterward, their résumés received higher approval ratings than those from White workers with the same qualifications.

A surplus of applicants

In general, older workers are more likely to face discrimination during a severe economic downturn. With a surplus of unemployed job applicants, employers often treat it as an opportunity to make their workforce younger and cheaper.

For instance, in the Great Recession, researchers found that when unemployment rises one percent, there is a corresponding 3.4 percent rise in ADEA charges related to discrimination in firings and a 1.4 percent increase in complaints about discrimination in hiring.

History and research make it clear that as Virginia climbs out of the pandemic-fueled recession, older job-seekers are likely to face illegal discrimination because of age.