Recent data, however, have shown that the advantage is deteriorating. “If you are old and have a job, you are less likely — albeit less less likely than in the old days — to be fired,” Dr. Munnell said.
The unemployment rate in March for workers ages 45 and over was 6.4 percent, the highest since at least 1948, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking unemployment on a monthly basis.
But once older workers lose their jobs, Dr. Munnell said, “then it’s horrible.” They have a much harder time finding work again than younger job-seekers do, and statistics appear to show that it is harder for them in this recession than in previous ones. During downturns in 1982 and 2001, workers ages 45 and over were unemployed an average of 19 weeks and just under 17 weeks, respectively.
Many out-of-work baby boomers have despaired as they wonder whether to trim their résumés to avoid giving away their decades of work experience, or to dye their hair.
More of them are now choosing to fight back. Age discrimination complaints were up nearly 30 percent in the 2008 fiscal year over the year before, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and that period ended just before the worst of the recession began.
But the vast majority of those complaints involved layoffs. Discrimination in hiring is often almost impossible to prove.
“Especially in this day and age when you apply online, you’re not even told why you can’t get past the first screening,” said Laurie McCann, a senior lawyer with the AARP Litigation Foundation.
Mr. Sims, in Texas, was so incensed by how he was treated that he tried to call the company’s chief executive but was unable to get through. He never seriously considered filing a formal complaint.
“I know enough about H.R. procedures and H.R. situations,” he said. “It would have never gone anywhere.”
Assessing just how pervasive age discrimination is in the job market is difficult. Certainly, older workers believe that it is rampant — an AARP survey in 2007 of workers ages 45 to 74 found that 60 percent said they had seen or experienced age bias.
Joanna N. Lahey, an economics professor at Texas A&M University, conducted a study published in 2005 in which she sent out 4,000 résumés on behalf of hypothetical job-seeking women ranging in age from 35 to 62 for entry-level jobs at companies in Boston and St. Petersburg, Fla. She changed only the applicant’s high school graduation year, an age indicator. Dr. Lahey found that workers under 50 were more than 40 percent more likely to be called for an interview.
Older workers often accumulate knowledge specific to their companies that helps protect them from layoffs, Dr. Lahey said. But that background is often less useful to other employers.
Older workers must also battle stereotypes about their energy and adaptability, as well as the reality that their health care costs are higher.
The oldest baby boomers have already begun retiring. But with retirement accounts plunging in value, more older workers than ever are trying to stay in the work force. And some unemployed boomers, frustrated after months of fruitless searching, have concluded that their only option is to turn their backs on successful careers and start over at much lower pay.