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Discriminate against the old? Even the old do it

Helaine Olen Mar 28, 2014
Ask Money

Discriminate against the old? Even the old do it

Helaine Olen Mar 28, 2014

I am sitting at my desk, clicking keys on my keyboard as faces with words cross my computer screen rapidly. In my midday slump, I’m more than a bit annoyed. What useful information can anyone glean from how quickly or slowly I decide whether words are happy or sad, even as I am also answering whether a pictured face belongs to a younger or older person?

As it turns out, plenty.

After the test, I learned that I had the energy to identify words as “good” more quickly when they were paired with young faces instead of older ones.

This finding comes as no surprise to Mahzarin Banaji, the Harvard University professor who is the co-creator of the Implicit Association Test, the online exam I’ve just taken. It’s designed to uncover prejudices so subconscious we are often unaware of them. Almost all of us reveal bias against older adults, she says — including older adults.

About 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day for about the next decade and a half. Unlike those from previous generations, who in the popular imagination happily shuffled off to leisure, most of the new retirees say they want to stay in the paid work force.

So far, however, staying on the job — in any position — is turning out to be harder than the baby boomers anticipated (and, in some cases, less desirable). Fewer than a fifth of Americans over the age of 65 remain in the paid work force. If a man or woman over 55 is unemployed, it takes that person several months longer than someone younger to find a job. Such people are also disproportionately represented among the long-term jobless.

As a result, academics are increasingly churning out studies and papers about age bias that they hope will reach those in a position to hire, promote and issue paychecks. “I can teach you a lot about the scientific evidence of bias, but the job of solving the problem is not just the job of scientists,” Ms. Banaji said. “You would want the public at large to engage with this.”

But many academics don’t see much grappling with the issue of age discrimination in the day-to-day work world. Ofer Sharone, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of the Institute for Career Transitions, recently recruited a group of 90 long-term jobless men and women and paired them with career coaches and counselors for three months. He’s now analyzing the data to determine what, if any, interventions were helpful.

Mr. Sharone has noticed one thing in common among his subjects. “Without exception, they talk about age discrimination,” he said.

Even though age discrimination claims at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are up sharply in recent years, older Americans have little recourse if they believe they are victims of illegal bias, since it is hard to prove.

Some companies are trying to use the research to combat the problem. In the health care sector, for example, growth of the sector and fears about the rapidly aging work force are leaving employers worried that they won’t be able to fill positions with qualified workers. The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has brought in Ms. Banaji to speak with senior executives and give an online seminar to other managers. “We all have unconscious biases that shape our perceptions and have a negative impact on our business decisions,” said Jack Watters, Pfizer’s vice president for external medical affairs.

One that might be of particular concern? “You assume when someone is older, their career will be shorter, so they don’t get the same opportunities,” Mr. Watters said.

Pfizer has also placed renewed emphasis on its Mentor Match program, in part to destigmatize aging by encouraging relationships between workers of different generations.

Tracey Rizzuto, an associate professor of human resources at Louisiana State University, is studying the impact of such mentoring in the oil and gas industry. She said the initiatives appeared to convey to older workers that their companies continued to value them and their contributions.

Human resources professionals often tell Ms. Rizzuto that formal mentor relationships increase the satisfaction of all employees. “What I’ve found is that among large companies using these programs, there was higher morale and internal performance,” she said.

Research shows that bias against senior workers decreases the engagement of everyone in the workplace. “It’s about a perception of fairness,” said Jacquelyn Boone James, the director of research at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work. Ms. Boone James was the lead author of a paper published in The Journal of Managerial Psychology that studied the impact of intentional and unintentional age discrimination on workers in a retail organization.

California-based Scripps Health tries to make sure employees in departments being eliminated are offered a chance at newly open positions within the company. They are offered three months of pay while they take advantage of placement services at the company’s Career Resource Center. Almost all end up finding new jobs at Scripps, said Victor V. Buzachero, the company’s senior vice president for innovation, human resources and performance management.

Mr. Buzachero acknowledged that he sometimes stepped in to require a Scripps manager to hire a middle-age or older worker if he thought age bias was a reason for someone being passed over. “It’s subtle,” he admitted. “They don’t come out and say it’s age. They say the person doesn’t have the commitment we’re looking for or the skills we are looking for.”

Scripps also encourages older workers to explore career reinventions. Take Ingrid Hassani, now 59. Ms. Hassani, a former chief nurse for a Florida hospital, returned to her native California in 2011. Seeking less management responsibility and more time to spend with her retired husband, she went looking for a position as a department care manager. She said she was routinely considered “overqualified” until she sent her résumé to Scripps, where she is now a care manager in the oncology department.

Ms. Hassani said her years in health management often came in handy. “When my boss calls me in she’ll say, ‘Ingrid, with your experience, how do you think we should handle this?’ ” she said with a laugh.

Work in America: Our special series in partnership with the New York Times looking at how the improvements in technology, combined with companies’ increased ability to outsource, have conspired to make radical changes to work in America. 


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