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Is it Really Age Discrimination?

age discrimination

It can sting if you suspect an employer hasn’t given you a fair shake because you’re over 40, or 45, or 50.

Many employers are savvy enough to know it’s illegal to include age preferences in notices about a job or advertisements. That doesn’t mean that some hiring managers don’t have a bias toward younger workers.

What can you do to make sure your resume doesn’t get tossed? My previous post on this subject sparked some spirited comments, so I’d like to address some of the issues readers raised about discrimination.

Decide if you want to fight it.

Some job seekers seek to right a wrong by a potential employer by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The total number of age-discrimination complaints  filed and resolved rose from 19,103 in 2007, before the recession, to a peak of 24,582 in 2008, when the global economic collapse began. With fewer people getting laid off in recent years, the number has been inching back down and was 21,396 in 2013.

But it’s hard to prove age-discrimination cases. The EEOC reported that in 15,113 of the cases filed in 2013, there was no reasonable cause to believe discrimination existed.

Accept that being qualified isn’t enough.

Think you are being discriminated against because you have more skills and experience for a job that someone younger was hired to fill? Well, contrary to what many people think, it’s not necessarily illegal for an employer to rule out someone who is “overqualified.”

According to the organization Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that supports workers’ rights, a company “is not required to hire the most qualified or experienced person for a particular position if the company believes that person’s skills and experience are not the best match for the position.”

That’s pretty hard to swallow, of course. But because the hiring process has a subjective element, having more experience and skills is not enough to prove that a company is discriminating against you.

Ask yourself “Is it ageism or wage-ism?” That’s how Ira Wolfe puts it. He’s a Baby Boomer who is president of pre-employment testing firm Success Performance Solutions.

Many people think discrimination is to blame if they can’t replace a high salary they earned in the past in a new job—and notice that younger people are getting the gigs they’re going after. But times change, and it’s possible your skills got devalued.

In some cases, “experience on the job isn’t worth double or triple the salary they can pay someone young,” explains Wolfe.

A company might believe that the skills that younger workers possess are enough to do the job, or that the experience you offer isn’t going to make enough difference for them to pay you more. If you suspect that’s the case, you may need to pick up new skills to get your earning power back up. It takes a concerted effort—I started out as a newspaper reporter, so I know how you feel!—but it is achievable. A career coach with experience in your field can help you determine which skills you need to remain competitive.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.