Despite a Tight Labor Market, Older Workers Cite Widespread Ageism as a Barrier to Employment

Older Americans are the fastest-growing segment of the labor force, but they continue to experience barriers to employment, according to a recent ZipRecruiter survey of older job seekers. Those barriers include employer fears that older workers may lack crucial tech skills, as well as ageism and bias against older workers even when they demonstrate equal skill and competence. 

Americans are working longer

Americans aged 55 and over have grown as a share of the workforce, from just 13% in 2000 to almost 24% today, according to data from the Current Population Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And the BLS projects that their labor force participation rates will continue to grow over the next decade–from 65.0% in 2018 to 67.9% in 2028 for workers aged 55 to 64 years; from 27.0% to 32.5% for those aged 65 to 74 years; and from 8.7% to 12.1% for those aged 75 years and older. And contrary to the widespread view that older workers prefer to work part-time, ZipRecruiter’s survey found that more than 80% of job seekers aged 55 or older say they are looking for full-time work. 

U.S. employers are increasingly recruiting older workers

In a tight labor market, employers are increasingly tapping into the growing pool of older workers, sometimes by including explicit appeals in job postings inviting retirees to apply. The share of job postings in the ZipRecruiter marketplace inviting retirees to apply has more than doubled between 2016 and 2019. 

Many employers still prefer younger employees 

Yet despite the historically strong job market, one-in-four job seekers over 55 reported difficulties finding a job in a recent ZipRecruiter survey of older workers and 53% reported having experienced age discrimination in the workplace. A ZipRecruiter analysis of job postings on its platform further found that, while job postings rarely include explicitly ageist language, 11% of postings describe ideal candidates in terms most typically associated with youthfulness, call for recent graduates, or place a ceiling on the desired experience level–for example by calling for candidates with “no more than” five years’ experience. Such language is most prevalent in job postings in industries where there is a premium on physical appearance and athleticism, such as in arts and entertainment, and sports and recreation. 

Many employers express concern that older workers may lack important tech skills 

Broadly across all industries, most employers said they thought older workers are just as capable as younger workers but expressed concerns about their tech-savviness. 

84% of the employers we surveyed said that it is either “largely true” or “somewhat true” that older workers are equally capable of doing the job as younger workers. Yet 45% expressed concern that older workers might lack the necessary tech skills–skills which 47% of the employers surveyed described as either “very important” or “extremely important.”

Even when older workers demonstrate equal skill, they may struggle to overcome ageist bias in hiring

Even when faced with two equally skilled and qualified candidates, however, many employers were not shy about expressing a clear preference for younger workers. While 67% of employers surveyed said they had no preference, 25% said that they would choose a 30-year-old over a 60-year-old, if faced with equally qualified candidates. That bias may be a challenge for older workers to overcome, even for those who successfully “reskill” themselves. 

Methodology: To produce this snapshot of the state of the labor market for older workers, we analyzed ZipRecruiter job posting data from 2019, as well as current and historical Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. The survey data cited below consists of responses collected from four separate surveys run during two different time periods. 

  • To gather data specific to ageism in the workplace, we surveyed 849 job seekers who self-identified as aged 55+ and 129 employers with businesses ranging in size from 1 to 1,000 employees in March of 2019. 
  • We conducted an additional survey of 2,532 job seekers who self-identified as aged 55+ and 296 employers in May of 2019 to gain further insights on the challenges faced by older job seekers and retirees looking to re-enter the workforce.

Written by

Julia Pollak is Chief Economist at ZipRecruiter. She leads ZipRecruiter's economic research team, which provides insights and analysis on current labor market trends and the future of work.

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