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05/14/2013 07:50 am ET | Updated Jul 14, 2013

An Elephant In The Room: Getting Old And Seeking Work -- How Much Does Age Matter?

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I knew I had started to look my age when fellow commuters began offering me a seat on the subway. A blow to my pride, perhaps, but I nonetheless gratefully accept when it happens. However, I haven't looked for a job lately and thus haven't encountered another type of age identification with much higher stakes than a bruised ego. That is the battering experienced by older jobseekers when employers won't give them the time of day.

"Once they see my age, their interest in talking to me goes away. They all say they will get back to me, but that hasn't happened yet." So contends 60-year-old Dan Holgate, who has not had a permanent job since being laid off in 2008. Dan is not alone: It is not uncommon to hear from older jobseekers who say they have sent out hundreds of resumes to no avail. The latest monthly employment data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that unemployed older Americans had been out of work thus looking for a job for an average of about 50 weeks in April.

Don't put your age, birthdate, or graduation dates on your resume, you might advise, and that would be good advice. Similarly, don't highlight when you did a particular job if that was decades ago. Rather stress what you accomplished during your employment history that might contribute to a new boss's bottom line. Still, it isn't so easy to avoid the age issue when applying for work. Online applications, which many employers favor these days, often ask for dates. You might be inclined not to report that information, but that could be your undoing. Some online forms will not let you proceed if you have not provided all the requested information.

Illegal under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act? Apparently not. According to Thomas Osborne, AARP Foundation Litigation senior attorney and expert on employment issues, it is not illegal to ask applicants their age. What is illegal is basing employment decisions on age. In other words, requiring a birthdate on an application is legal. Automatically dismissing applicants based on that information is not.

But how do you know that the information has not influenced the decision to call you in for an interview? You generally don't. Occasionally though, someone lets something slip: A veteran Capitol Hill staffer, with three decades under his belt as a top aide, decided to retire and seek a lobbying or similar job. In his early 60s, this man -- who prefers to remain anonymous because he does not want to undermine his job search -- has great credentials and a long track record of excellence but has made little progress in finding a job, despite some interviews. Age discrimination seems to be a factor, at least judging from the words of a corporate interviewer who told him a year into his job search that "you should have done this 20 years ago" (when he would have been about 40). But in general, age discrimination, especially when it comes to hiring, is not easy to identify or quantify -- most employers are unlikely to admit that they engage in such behavior.

Yet a majority of older workers are convinced that age discrimination exists, according to a new AARP Staying Ahead of the Curve survey. Some two-thirds of workers and jobseekers ages 45 to 74 say that, based on what they have seen or experienced, workers today face age discrimination in the workplace. Almost half of these contend that discrimination is very common. Nearly one in five older workers report not getting hired due to age.

To be sure, these observations are perceptions, not facts. Most of us are not told that age was the reason we were passed over. But economist Joanna Lahey, a professor at Texas A&M University, put such assertions to the test when she responded to entry-level job openings by sending resumes to 4,000 employers in two cities. High school graduation date was used to indicate an applicant's age. Lahey found that a younger applicant was more than 40 percent more likely to be called in for an interview than one who was 50 or older.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency with jurisdiction over the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Workers and jobseekers who think they have been discriminated against can file a charge with the EEOC, and nearly 23,000 age charges were filed in the 2012 fiscal year. Age discrimination in hiring was cited as a discriminatory action far less frequently than discharge--just over 2,700 hiring citations, in contrast to 14,700 for discharge last year. Perhaps discharge discrimination is more common, but another explanation is that the evidence may be clearer in those cases: It is easy to see who has been let go and who has been retained. Age differences are readily discernible. That is not the case when it comes to hiring. Unless privy to inside information, the typical job applicant does not know the competition nor how a hiring decision was made. Maybe the winner had more of the required skills; maybe she had more relevant experience. Or maybe he was younger.

It is one thing when advancing age provides a perk or two, even if the reasons for them are not always fully appreciated. However, it is quite another when age prevents qualified candidates from getting through the door and having an opportunity to market themselves in person to prospective employers.

Dave Nathan of AARP Media Relations contributed reporting to this blog.

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