You’re middle-aged and looking for a job. Half of the help-wanted ads you see say there’s no need to apply if you’re age 55 or older. Many other postings — 25 percent, in fact — actually ban applications from anyone over age 45.
Such was the case in 1965, according to a Labor Department report produced during the era of civil rights legislation. Lawmakers at that time were wondering whether age deserved the same anti-discrimination protections given to race and sex in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The unemployment level for older adults was 27 percent that year. So Congress stepped in and passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed on Dec. 15, 1967.
For 50 years, the ADEA has been the main bulwark protecting the rights of workers over the age of 40. But several Supreme Court rulings have eroded its basic safeguards. For example, in 2009 the court ruled that workers have to prove that age was the primary reason they were dismissed or demoted, a different standard than had previously been used for ADEA cases and one that makes it much more difficult for workers to prevail.
The law’s other shortcomings have become increasingly clear in recent years. For example, some employers have found ways to get around the law’s restrictions regarding hiring practices. Recruiters are not allowed to ask a job seeker’s age, so instead some online applications require applicants to state the year of their high school or college graduation in order to submit the form — and those details, of course, reveal age. Other digital applications have dropdown menus for graduation dates that don’t go back beyond a certain year, implying anyone who graduated before then need not apply.
Victims of age-based workplace harassment — such as comments that are demeaning but don’t cause clear financial harm — often decide not to file lawsuits because the limitations on damages make pursuing a case economically unfeasible. And in some professions older workers are still being forced into mandatory retirement, despite the ADEA’s ban on this practice.