Could age discrimination derail your retirement plans?

Can you retire early?
Can you retire early?

Age discrimination isn't something most people factor into their long-term career plans, but maybe they should.

A growing number of older workers say they've experienced it both in job searches and at their office, and it's had an impact on their ability to find work and save for retirement.

Read MoreFor boomers, it's the retirement that never was

While the overall unemployment rate among those 45 years and older is no higher than among other age groups, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in a recent report that the incidence of long-term unemployment does increase dramatically with age. In 2014, for example, about 22 percent of the unemployed under age 25 had looked for work for 27 weeks or longer compared with nearly 45 percent of those 55 years and older.

Although it's impossible to suss out how much of the difference in the percent of long-term unemployed is attributable to age discrimination, half of workers between 45 and 70 years old who've been out of work over the past five years reported age discrimination negatively affecting their ability to get a job, according to a March survey by the AARP Public Policy Institute.

And discrimination isn't limited to the job search.

An AARP survey conducted two years ago found two-thirds of workers between 45 and 74 had seen or experienced age discrimination on the job. And the overall number of age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has jumped 15 percent over the last decade. (Tweet This)

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, passed in 1967, protects those 40 years or older from employment discrimination based on age at employers with 20 or more employees. Under the law, these employers may not discriminate against a person because of his or her age with respect to hiring, firing, promotion, layoffs, compensation, benefits, job assignments and training.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have age discrimination laws that are stronger than the ADEA. But a 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found "very little evidence that stronger state age discrimination protections helped older workers weather the Great Recession."

It's also become harder in recent years for workers to win age discrimination lawsuits because of the 2009 Supreme Court ruling in Gross v. FBL Financial Services that an older worker suing under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act must satisfy a higher standard of proof than a plaintiff suing for employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Thousands of complaints are filed annually with the EEOC, and millions of dollars are awarded in settlementsmonetary benefits topped $77 million in 2014 and reached nearly $98 million the year before. But for the majority of complaints filed each year, no reasonable cause is determined from the evidence submitted. In 2014, for example, the agency received 20,588 age discrimination complaints, and it found 13,159 complaints to have no reasonable cause. (The complaint filer may still pursue litigation.)

"Age discrimination is prevalent in the workplace, but proving age discrimination in hiring decisions is very difficult," said Lori Trawinski, director of banking and finance at the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Read MoreFor many older workers, a new job comes with a pay

Nonetheless, it is crimping the retirement plans of baby boomers who counted on working longer to bolster their nest eggs.

A third of more than 1,100 boomer households surveyed by retirement marketing research company Hearts & Wallets last year cited age discrimination as the reason they retired earlier than they wanted, and 29 percent said it had prevented them from working as much as they would like. "Every time we do focus groups with retirees, we always hear about age discrimination," said Chris Brown, principal of Hearts & Wallets.

Eighty-two percent of American workers age 60 or older expect to keep working past age 65 or do not plan to retire, according to a recent survey of American workers from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. But the fact iswhether it's age bias or a down job market or physical constraintsthey may not have control over how long they work. And there's little recourse if they suspect discrimination is the culprit.

"Age discrimination exists in the workplace in a big way and we as individuals have to learn how to navigate through it and overcome it," said Ford R. Myers, 60, a Philadelphia career coach and author of "Get the Job You Want Even When No One's Hiring."

Read MoreEven the rich are afraid of running out of money

Whether discrimination plays a role or not, older workers face unique challenges in finding employment and even opportunities within their own companies. For one, there are fewer senior-level jobs than junior or midlevel positions, and they're often competing against younger candidates for those roles—a reality that can catch workers over 50 off guard.

The 55- to 75-year-old retirees who participated in nine focus groups run by Hearts & Wallets in 2013 cited the dearth of senior-level opportunities as the biggest surprise they encountered late in their careers, Brown said.

Given the real or perceived bias against older workers—that they're more expensive, less productive, and may be out of touch with the latest technology and trends—they must learn to adapt, said Myers. "And you don't need $500,000 in plastic surgery," he added.

So what should older workers do?

Take advantage of one of their greatest assets: The experience and extensive networks they've developed throughout their careers.

"In many cases, mature workers are their own worst enemies" when it comes to finding a job, Myers said. One of the biggest mistakes they make, he added, is not tapping the extensive professional networks they've built up if they are laid off because they are "too embarrassed or ashamed to tell anyone."

Read MoreOlder workers: Good or bad for business?

Showcasing and upgrading technical skills is also a must for older workers. Myers recommends putting relevant technical expertise front and center on the resume. Why? Recruiters spend only six seconds reviewing an individual resume, according to a 2012 study by online job marketplace TheLadders, which used eye-tracking technology to evaluate the behavior of 30 professional recruiters during a 10-week period.

Myers, who charges individuals $1,500 to $7,000 for his coaching services, which include individualized career plans and training for job seekers, also urges clients to work on a part-time or project basis if they lose their full-time jobs to prevent gaps on their resume and maintain skills and income.

"We have to get rid of this concept that 'if you're not working full-time with benefits, it's a waste,'" Myers said. "Employers are going to ask you what you've been doing now, that's what matters to them."

Rather than listing every experience, Myers also advises focusing on the skills that are vital to your particular industry. "It's not about chronological age," he said. "There are people who are 24 and act like they're 97. Mature workers need to strive to be the 'get it done' people at their organizations."

After all, in the end, the ability to get the job done is what really matters.