En español | The signs at first are disguised, then painfully apparent, they say. Solid performance reviews suddenly turn negative. Invitations to weekly and monthly meetings are no longer forthcoming. New demands and quotas seem harsh and unreasonable. In what some see as age bias, older workers are being forced out of their jobs. Read the five profiles on these pages to see how some workers are coping at this stage of their careers.
What's the law? Age discrimination claims have been on the rise since 1997, when 15,785 reports were filed, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Last year, 21,396 claims were recorded. Not every lawsuit is valid, experts say. Many are settled without assigning blame. Companies are sometimes hamstrung by the law from giving their side of the story in age discrimination cases.
On the other hand, consumer advocates and lawyers say recorded claims represent only a slice of the total number of workers who get pushed out of a job because they are older.
One possible reason for the trend: an aging population. More than 20 percent of workers in the United States, some 33 million, are age 55 and up, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects workers 40 and older from personnel decisions based solely on age in hiring, firing, layoffs, promotions or demotions. The act applies to employers with at least 20 workers. That law was weakened in 2009, advocates say, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it more difficult for workers to prove age discrimination. The court ruled that the burden of proof was now on the worker to show that age was the deciding factor — rather than one of a number of factors, as previously held — in a dismissal, demotion or other adverse action.
Bipartisan legislation introduced last year would restore some protections. The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which AARP strongly supports, would amend and clarify federal antidiscrimination laws.
Older workers say the legislation is needed. In a survey of more than 1,502 older adults, about 64 percent say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Of those, 92 percent say it is very or somewhat common, according to the AARP report "Staying Ahead of the Curve."
Grant Morris, a Washington, D.C., employment lawyer, says many companies skirt age-discrimination laws by offering severance pay to ousted older workers, with the condition that they sign waivers releasing the company from liability.
"Everyone faces huge financial pressures when they are discharged from a company," he says, so workers are quick to accept the terms.
Cindy Levering is the volunteer chair of the pension research team at the Society of Actuaries, which conducted a 2013 study that asked recently retired people why they left their jobs.
"People who had retired voluntarily — it turned out it wasn't so voluntary," she says. "They felt they had been pushed out. Some said employers were setting unrealistic goals. Some couldn't do their job because of physical demands, or they didn't feel valued. Not many said they wanted to retire to pursue their dreams or passion."
Even when company practices are challenged, the odds of winning a case aren't great.
"It's so difficult to prove age discrimination that employers are emboldened," says Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation. "They think they can get away with it."