Older, wiser but an outsider

Spare a thought for people looking for work during the pandemic lockdown, sending out hundreds of applications with no success. But, for many older workers, this isn’t unusual even in normal times.

A recent study for the Centre for Ageing Better takes an in-depth view of older workers’ experiences of discrimination. In this piece, Dr Heather Rolfe, one of the researchers, looks at discrimination in a key stage in the selection process – the job interview.

How common are experiences of age discrimination?

A survey conducted for the research found almost one in five jobseekers in their fifties and sixties had experienced age discrimination. For many, this had a substantial impact on their lives. A third of those who experienced discrimination were stuck in insecure work and over two-thirds said it had undermined their confidence.

Many said they had been put off applying for jobs because they had come to expect discrimination. Those who persisted noted a reduction in the number of invitations for interviews as they got older – usually after hitting 50.

Interviews can be a discrimination tool

Much age discrimination is out of sight, including through initial sifts, so that many research participants are left guessing whether they had been treated fairly or not. Where firmer evidence of discrimination was experienced, it was at the interview. In CV-based application processes, it’s possible to conceal your age yet the vast majority of the research participants said they don’t do that. While some didn’t know that hiding age was allowed, others just wanted to be honest: it wasn’t something they wished to hide. Some felt it best to be upfront about their age rather than be rejected later. Those who had faced a disinterested panel didn’t want to repeat this humiliation and disappointment of this experience.

Research participants described an array of behaviours from interviewers which led them to conclude that they were rejected on grounds of their age. Participants described how the conversation turned to issues of age. Some were asked when they planned to retire, or told they were the oldest candidate. Some were cross-questioned about their physical strength, stamina and health. Others were asked how they would feel about working with younger people, being managed by someone younger or whether they were too experienced for the job.

For some participants, seemingly casual actions or comments suggested age discrimination. One interviewee, in his early 50s described how, having mentioned previous work experiences from the eighties, a panellist had remarked to his colleague: ‘1985? I wasn’t even born then!

‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’

It is often said that an interviewer makes up their mind within the first few minutes: our participants described being on the sharp end of this practice. Some recounted experiences of disengaged interview panels speeding through standard questions ending in ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’. A woman in her early 60s described how:

There have been a couple of interviews, as soon as I’ve walked in, I’ve noticed the look on their face, and I’ve thought, I’m not going to get this.

And they’ve really wound it up quickly, and I’ve tried to ask them a couple of questions, and they were just not interested.

The research also found instances of recruiters trying to persuade applicants that the job was not for them – sometimes in less than subtle ways – as a 53 year old truck driver explained:

He was just saying everything he could to put me off. The type of work being done, the manual stress… Everything was just, this isn’t for you… I’d be a lot happier if he’d turned round and said, ‘look mate you’re old and skinny, you’re not for us, go’.

An applicant for a job in a lettings company was questioned whether she really wanted the long commute and could leave her dog home alone. She described how she could tell her interviewer wanted her to withdraw her application ‘to save him the embarrassment, bother or guilt’.

Older workers have become discrimination experts

Age discrimination is something that everyone who lives long enough may experience. Unlike other forms of discrimination, its victims are able to make a comparison with treatment in their younger years. But it is also often combined, or intersected with, discrimination based on race, gender and disability. The survey found that more than a third of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic applicants experience age discrimination.

Older people experience discrimination as rejection for aspects of their identity which in other areas of their life give them pride and confidence. This includes their gender and ethnicity as well as their age. Their experiences in work and in life were ones they consider of value to employers, yet this is often dismissed by employers. As a consequence, some felt forced out of the labour market before they were ready to retire.

How to take ageism out of job interviews

It was clear that many of the employers whose practices were reported by our participants had much to learn about good HR practice. As well as describing practices which affected their interview performance, respondents were discouraged by the absence of older people in the workplace and on the panel. Their concerns are based in evidence, with previous research finding that employers who already have a high proportion of older workers are more likely than ‘young’ organisations to recruit others.

The use of mixed panels is therefore an essential step towards age equality in recruitment. An employer who finds it hard to get together a panel diverse in age, gender and ethnicity clearly needs to take stock. And interviewers need to be trained to avoid age discrimination, among other forms of prejudice.

The coronavirus pandemic presents an added challenge for jobseekers, with older workers undoubtedly among the most affected. But as the economy recovers, it’s time the HR profession, employer bodies and employers themselves took a closer look at how outdated perceptions and flawed practices are wasting the experience, expertise and talent of older people.


Find out more at The Centre for Ageing Better’s Good Recruitment for Older Workers page here.