CHICAGO — Are older workers being discriminated against on the job? The answer appears to depend on the age of the person asked.
About half of Americans think there's age discrimination in the workplace, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
But there's a split by age. The poll finds 60% of adults age 60 and over say older workers in the U.S. are always or often discriminated against, while 43% of adults younger than 45 say the same.
"I just think they're not really aware of it," says Wendy Sachs, 48, an author and speaker. She often has discussed her own experiences with age discrimination applying for and working at New York City startup companies.
Federal law bars age discrimination in employment. Yet three-quarters of adults 60 and older — and 65% of those between ages 45 and 59 — say they believe their age puts them at a disadvantage when looking for work. One in 10 adults 60 and over and about 2 in 10 of those age 45 to 59 say they have been passed over for a raise, promotion or chance to get ahead specifically because of their age.
"They look at you kind of strange as you apply for a job. And I immediately know 'Oh, well, I'm not going to get hired,'" says Kevin Kusinitz. The 63-year-old New Yorker spent years being rejected from jobs for which he felt overqualified after an August 2012 layoff.
Kusinitz now works a few days each week as a background actor in movies and television shows through Central Casting New York, and he says his wife "makes a good salary" to help support them. But after his initial layoff at 56, he says he spent years unsuccessfully trying to land a job.
He believes his age was a primary reason his job search failed to gain traction. As he filled out one particular online application, he was asked to select his birth year from a drop down menu. He discovered the menu didn't go back far enough for him to enter an accurate date.
"I think it only went back to the 1970s. I thought 'Wow, I'm not even in the drop-down range. I really am old,'" he says.
By comparison, younger adults are more likely to think their age puts them at an advantage. Nearly half of those under 30 and about one-third of those age 30 to 44 say they feel their age is a benefit.
Sachs applied for a handful of startup jobs in New York about five years ago. She says she was often competing against 20-somethings for positions and was at times made to feel like an outsider because of her age. She recounts one awkward exchange with a younger hiring manager who dismissed the physical resume she'd brought to her interview, instead insisting on a digital copy.
Sachs eventually landed a position but was let go shortly thereafter. She says she was led to believe her experience commanded too high a salary and that younger, less experienced workers would fill her role for less pay.
Meanwhile, the survey shows 75% of women over 45 say their age puts them at a disadvantage when looking for work, compared with 65% of older men.
"For women, we see an early onset (cases of age discrimination), and the discrimination is much more severe," says Patrick Button, an assistant economics professor at Tulane University. "I think there is a lot of sexism in aging."
Button and his fellow researchers mocked up and distributed more than 40,000 fake job applications to online postings. They found that resumes designed to look like they belonged to an older applicant, particularly an older female applicant, were less likely to get a call back.
"There's some evidence of age discrimination against men, but more so men at retirement age rather than men at age 50," Button says.
The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act bars discrimination in the workplace on the basis of age. A recent decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said that only current employees can be protected by certain elements of the statute, effectively loosening the restrictions on employers screening older individuals out of their applicant pool.
"Hiring discrimination — you almost never have any proof. If you think about how people look for jobs these days, it's almost all online," says Laurie McCann, a senior attorney at the AARP Foundation. "You send your resume off into a black hole. Maybe you receive a reply that thanks you for your application, but you have no idea why you were screened out or who got the job ahead of you. It's very hard to prove."
Even as most older adults say older workers face discrimination at work, 21% of adults 60 and over do say they feel more respected at work because of their age. The survey also finds only about 1 in 10 of adults over 60 are worried about their ability to do their job.
William Moore, a 77-year-old resident of Washington state, says he began working at an Enterprise Rent-a-Car outfit after retiring as a mechanic.
"The only issue was, were you able to do the job. If you were doing it a little slower, OK, we do it slower," he says. "I think (age discrimination) might be an issue in some jobs, but I didn't see it in mine."