Recruiting and Staffing

What Discrimination Looks Like in 2011: It’s Older and Unemployed


Anyone who has been in the hiring game, or even just an active member of America’s workforce for more than a few years, knows this in their heart: job discrimination comes in all forms.

The newest form is particularly insidious because it not only comes at a time when our country (and a good chunk of the world) is slowly working to recover from the worst economic downturn in 75 years, but because it also targets some of the most vulnerable and fragile members of our society.

Yes, I’m talking about the ongoing discrimination against the older, struggling-to-find-a-job, long-term unemployed.

Don’t apply if unemployed

Think I’m going overboard and making too much out of this? Maybe, but I wonder if you’ll feel the same way after reading this story from the Indianapolis Star that was also published in USA Today. Here’s what jumped out at me:

With three college degrees including an MBA and a resume boasting volunteer work and a 25-year stint at one company, Linda Keller is devastated by what employers see in her…

She’s among 4.4 million people nationwide who have been out of work for a year or more. The group makes up more than 40% of the total unemployed, the highest percentage since World War II.

Keller and others in that category say there is a stigma that long-term jobless people have been sitting around and don’t really want to work. There is the perception that they won’t take a lower paying job — and if they do, they will bolt as soon as they find a higher paying one.

And on top of that, some companies — including PMG Indiana, Sony Ericsson and retailers nationwide — have explicitly barred the unemployed or long-term unemployed from certain job openings, outright telling them in job ads that they need not apply.

The phenomenon poses a vicious cycle of unemployed people wanting work but not being able to get it because they are unemployed, human resource experts say.”

The story goes on to talk to other older, unemployed workers who are also very up front about their feelings that they can’t find a new job, in large part, because they are being discriminated against. It even points to one company — PMG Indiana, a manufacturer of automotive parts and components — that recently ran an ad for a production assistant that read: “Must have worked in the previous 12 months.”

Age discrimination is nothing new

Discrimination against the unemployed is not a new claim. Howard Adamsky wrote about it here at TLNT last August when he matter-of-factly said:

Discrimination of the unemployed has been going on for as long as I have been recruiting. (Also among the short, gay, old, obese, and assorted others, but later for that.) Unspeakably evil in its intent as well as its outcome, but let’s be realistic: most companies do not want to hire the unemployed. After all, if they were any good, they would have a job right?”

Yes, Howard is 100 percent right when he says that discrimination of the unemployed has been going on for a long time, but maybe the difference today is that we have more unemployed people who want to find a job than any time since the Great Depression. That doesn’t make it any better, of course, it just means that with so many more unemployed, we’re seeing job discrimination at a level that just about no one alive today has ever seen before.

With that comes more media coverage of this terrible new trend, and my sense is that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about how the older unemployed are being discriminated against as the economy slowly improves and more of them see they’re being left behind by it.

A story this past weekend in the Baltimore Sun made this point all too well:

Nationwide, the average unemployed worker age 55 or older looked for a job without success for 10 months last year, the longest stretch on record. Also, age-discrimination complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spiked when the recession hit, jumping from 19,000 to more than 24,000 in fiscal 2008, and have remained at an elevated level ever since.

The out-of-work predicament only compounds with time, according to labor experts. “The longer you’re unemployed, the harder it is to find a job,” said Richard W. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. ”Workers 55 and older who are out of work may never work again.”

Johnson found that only a quarter of workers age 50 to 61 who lost jobs between the middle of 2008 and end of 2009 were re-employed within a year. For those 62 and up, the results were even worse, with 18 percent landing a new job within a year.

Rutgers’ John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, surveying Americans who lost jobs during the recession, reported similar findings in a December report entitled “The Shattered American Dream.”

“We are witnessing the birth of a new class — the involuntarily retired,” the authors wrote.”

Is there any way out of this?

Yes, it has always tough being unemployed, but the current situation is beyond tough. Unemployed workers are being held responsible for the fact that they are unemployed even though much of this happened because of the slash-and-burn policies so many companies opted for to get through the recession. And even when the unemployed DO get offered some kind of work, it is frequently at a pay level far below what they used to get or what their experience level should command.

All of this raises this question: is there any way out of this mess, or are we just going to see all these older, unemployed people continue to be discriminated against simply because they are older and out of work? Are they going to eventually get work, or, will they just wither and fade away?

There is a better way, of course, and it comes from someone with a much more positive outlook who blogs as the HR Optimist. Deborah Herman reminds all of us who have some responsibility for HR or hiring what we simply can’t forget:

I am not suggesting that we only hire unemployed candidates (that would be idiotic and WAY too optimistic – even for me). I’m just asking that we take the “must already be employed” mandate off the table. Instead of looking for what is wrong with the candidate, let’s take a minute to dig a little deeper and find what’s right. There are some great people out there ready to give their all.”

John Hollon is Vice President for Editorial of, and the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices. Contact him at, and follow him on Twitter at
  • Gabriel Gheorghiu

    I’m really curious how this will change when the majority of the employed people will be old. Discrimination will surely not disappear, so i guess the target will be the younger people, since they will be the minority…

  • Mary

    I agree and have seen this first hand, my husband lost his position at the company he had worked at for over 22 yrs….at the age of 53…he was in a very senior position and had been earning a very high salary….after that he applied and tried desparately to get a job, being told he was too qualified, he wouldn’t be happy with their pay…etc…etc…he would have been thrilled to get a job at practically any rate….. He is now taking courses to pursue a totally different field where he will be able to work with others yet in a more self-employed capacity….for those that don’t want to retire early starting your own company pretty much seems the only option….

    It’s really not fair, that highly qualified and competent people never get that second chance.

  • Maj_faktor

    Employers can’t ask your age but can require you to give the year you graduated high school. What’s the difference?

  • Daniel Eshel

    The economy was overheated. Plus the old hiring paradigm is not functional any more. Now every person struggles alone to correct the global fall. It is a macro-economic adjustment put on the shoulders of particular persons (us). We will overcome, many less paid and more agile though. Beware of the next crises, it is being prepared by the old-fashion HR personnel. Good luck to ALL.
    -Daniel Eshel

  • Brent Clark

    there is a website out that wants to confront the issues of Americans over 50 not getting hired. It is:

  • Cr

    I’ve experienced this insidious phenomenon myself.It is compounded by the fact that older workersare usually the most experienced & highly paid and employers are bargain hunting during this (slight) recovery. The practice of unemployment discrimination is illegal under current civil rights laws, I believe. I give some suggestions in my blog: