Not long ago, age discrimination was mostly associated with those getting close to retirement. But as the economy changes and the Baby Boomer generation ages — the youngest Boomers turned 40 in 2004 — age discrimination is affecting more workers who are nowhere near the end of their careers.
In fact, many managers in their 40s may feel like they’re just hitting their stride in terms of professional accomplishment.
“Age bias seems to almost be acceptable, and that’s a real problem,” says Dan Kohrman, senior attorney for AARP and an expert on age discrimination. “In some cases, employees are being let go, and they don’t realize what was done to them — that they were discriminated against because of their age.”
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 is designed to protect those age 40 and older. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), age discrimination complaints have been increasing steadily since 1999, especially among those between the ages of 40 and 50. And a survey conducted by ExecuNet in February 2005 revealed that 89 percent of those polled, who represented a cross-section of white-collar workers aged 30 to 60, were concerned that they may soon be discriminated against for age-related reasons.
So what can you do if you feel you’re a victim of age discrimination? If you have recently been fired or laid off, talk to others who were recently let go and look for possible patterns. What sort of anecdotal evidence can you dig up? Does the company have a history of discrimination, not just by age, but also by race, gender or other factors? Also, contact an employment lawyer or the EEOC, which has a section of its Web site on age discrimination.
It’s a trickier situation if you are employed but concerned about age discrimination in your workplace. In this case, you should educate yourself on all the different shapes age discrimination can take, advises Kohrman. Have you seen colleagues get passed over for promotions and raises because of their age? Has the company recently begun using evaluations such as “forced rankings”? Age discrimination experts say this rating system, which can be used to assign poor performance ratings to previously high-performing employees, is one tactic used to create a paper trail that can protect a company from a potential age discrimination lawsuit.
But thinking you’re a victim of age discrimination is one thing; pursuing legal action is another.
Kohrman and other attorneys point out that employment law is tough on plaintiffs.
“Smoking guns needed to prove deliberate age discrimination are hard to find,” says Michael Harper, a Boston University Law School professor. You won’t find corporate memos mandating that 40-somethings be eliminated, he adds, so cases will always involve statistics and anecdotal evidence.
That means a lot of research, according to Kohrman. But workers have one advantage today that didn’t exist 20 years ago to help them prepare for an age discrimination battle: The Internet.
“Someone who feels they have been wronged can do a lot of preliminary research on their own,” says San Francisco attorney Adam Levy. “It’s incredible what you may learn about a company or a supervisor or a CEO just using Google or Yahoo.”