Older Americans struggling to overcome age discrimination while looking for work face a new enemy: their computers.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently opened a probe into allegations that ageism is built right into the online software tools that millions of Americans use to job hunt.
Separate research published recently by the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank found that in a widespread test using fabricated resumes, fictional older workers were 30 percent less likely to be contacted after applying for jobs. Fictional older women had it even worse, being 47 percent less likely to get a "callback."
Several forces are conspiring to ensure that many Americans have to work well past the traditional retirement age of 65. People are living longer, their retirement savings are inadequate, and Social Security reforms are almost certainly going to require it. The San Francisco Fed says that the share of the older-65 working population is projected to rise sharply — from about 19 percent now to 29 percent in the year 2060.
Online job-hunting tools should be making things easier for older employment seekers, and it can. Indeed.com, which claims to list 16 million jobs worldwide, currently lists 158,000 openings under its "Part Time Jobs, Senior Citizen Jobs" category. Monster.com, which claims 5 million listings, has a special home page for "Careers at 50+."
In other ways, however, online job sites can cut older workers out. Age bias is built right into their software, according to Madigan. Job seekers who try to build a profile or resume can find that it's impossible to complete some forms because drop-down menus needed to complete tasks don't go back far enough to let older applicants fill them out. For example, one site's menu options for "years attended college" stops abruptly at 1956. That could prevent someone in their late 70s from filling out the form.
Madigan's office said it found one example that only accommodated those who had attended school after 1980, "barring anyone who is older than 52." Other sites used dates ranging from 1950 to 1970 as cutoffs, her office said.
"Today's workforce includes many people working in their 70s and 80s," Madigan said. "Barring older people from commonly used job search sites because of their age is discriminatory and negatively impacts our economy."
The Illinois' Civil Rights Bureau has opened a probe into potential violations of the Illinois Human Rights Act and the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Madigan's office has sent inquiry letters to six top jobs sites: Beyond.com, CareerBuilder, Indeed Inc., Ladders Inc., Monster Worldwide Inc. and Vault.
CareerBuilder called the issue a mistake.
"CareerBuilder is committed to helping workers of all ages find job opportunities, and is fixing this unfortunate oversight," spokesman Michael Erwin said in an email.
Beyond.com said it hadn't heard from Madigan's office, and added that it works to prevent age discrimination on the site.
"Discrimination has no part in the hiring process and that's why we take such care to help job seekers and hiring managers carefully consider all information they put forth during the job search process to avoid any conscious or unconscious bias," the company said in a statement.
Indeed.com also said it had not heard from the attorney general's office, and denied its site had an issue.
"On Indeed, anyone can upload a resume with any dates, and users can create a resume with drop down dates that go back to 1900," spokesman Alex Ortolani said.
Monster, and Vault did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Ladders said the company has not received a letter so far from Madigan. "Our site does not restrict the dates on resumes that people submit to us. In fact, to combat age discrimination we do not ask for a year of graduation from college," in an email on March 13.
Experts say it's best to leave age off your resume. Online resume-building tools that force applicants to enter years for degree programs or work experience have a way of forcing the issue, however. And there's fresh evidence why such revelations are a bad idea.
In the San Francisco Fed's experiment to see if it could find statistical evidence of age discrimination, researchers created fictitious resumes for young (ages 29–31), middle age (49–51), and older (64–66) job applicants. Then those resumes were submitted to 13,000 positions in 12 cities across 11 states, totaling more than 40,000 applicants.
Age was not listed, but was clearly implied by the inclusion of high school graduation years.
Across several categories of jobs — sales, administrators, even janitors — there was evidence of age bias, the researchers found. For example: Among men seeking sales jobs, callbacks fell to 14.70 percent from 20.89 percent — a drop of about one-third — as applicants age rose from middle age to older.
The study unearthed an even stronger pattern of discrimination against older women, suggesting that group faces a double-whammy of age and gender discrimination when trying to remain in the workforce. Older female applicants for administrative jobs had a 47 percent lower callback rate than young female applicants. In sales jobs, older women were 36 percent less likely to get a call.
The study notes that any "supply-side" reforms designed to nudge Americans to work longer — namely delaying Social Security benefits — won't work if older workers are systematically shut out of job openings.
"Current policies to combat age discrimination, which rely in large part on private litigation for enforcement, may be ineffective at reducing or eliminating age discrimination in hiring," the report concludes.
(Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Ladders.)