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Age Discrimination, Caregiving and Health Issues Limit Options for Older Workers

Too often they settle for positions that don't utilize their earned skills or experience

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spinner image graphic describing a poll asking workers age 45 plus if being in a job that does not make use of their skills bothers them. 29 percent said it does not 40 percent said it bothers them a little and 31 percent says it bothers them a lot

Even with low unemployment rates making employers desperate to hire, many older adults say they are trapped in jobs that either don't match their skills or don't let them work as many hours as they'd like, a new survey from AARP finds.

Fourteen percent of workers age 45-plus fall into this underemployed category, AARP research shows.

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One major reason for their underemployment is age discrimination, the AARP survey finds. A quarter of underemployed workers who say they're in a job that undervalues their skills cite age discrimination as the culprit. For such workers 60 and older, 48 percent blame age discrimination.

Older workers who cite lack of hours for their underemployment also point to age bias, but at lower rates — at 17 percent. That so many workers over 45 would call out age discrimination as a chief reason they feel they have limited options is consistent with a 2018 AARP survey that found that 61 percent of older adults witnessed bias on the job or experienced it personally.

"Nobody wants to go to work and be berated for your age,” says Susan Weinstock, vice president of Financial Resilience Programming at AARP. The discrimination is particularly perplexing because older workers exhibit the soft skills employers say they seek, Weinstock says, such as “calm under pressure, the ability to solve problems, being empathetic, listening skills, things that you gain as you worked longer and longer years."

spinner image graphic showing that as workers age it tends to take them longer to find new jobs

For the research, AARP conducted an online survey of 750 people age 45 and older last August. Another one of the survey's key insights is that the causes of underemployment among older workers vary depending on whether they have too few hours — defined as working less than 35 hours a week — or feel that they're too skilled for their current work. While workers whose skills don't match their current position cite age discrimination or the difficulty of finding a job that meets their preferred income and benefits as major reasons for their underemployment, 62 percent of older workers who are underemployed based on hours point to poor health, being too busy or caring for an adult or child.

"Caregiving responsibilities are important and even though they are technically voluntary, they don't feel as such,” says Cal Halvorsen, an assistant professor at the Boston College School of Social Work and a research affiliate at the Center on Aging & Work, also at Boston College. Boomers in particular may feel like the sandwich generation — caring for their parents, who are living longer, and for their children, who are slower to become financially independent. “The other thing to consider is the cost of hiring caregivers is quite high,” Halvorsen says. Performing the work themselves may be a cost saver for some adult workers, even after reducing their work schedule.

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Workers underemployed due to a skill mismatch are less likely to be satisfied with their jobs than workers underemployed due to working too few hours. The AARP survey shows that only 55 percent of mismatched workers are satisfied, compared with 79 percent of those workers who are underemployed based on hours. Seventy-one percent of mismatched workers are bothered “that their current job doesn't make use of their skills,” the survey says.

Yet despite the dissatisfaction with their current employment situation, 56 percent of mismatched workers aren't looking for different work. The same is true to 44 percent of underemployed workers due to insufficient hours.

One reason older workers aren't looking elsewhere in droves is that those who have jobs may feel reluctant to test the waters. According to the Urban Institute, about half of full-time, full-year workers between the ages of 50 and 54 will lose their jobs involuntarily. “It is possible that those who are underemployed yet feel that their work is secure are hesitant to seek out new jobs,” Halvorsen says.

Advocacy for older workers can take many forms. AARP runs an employer pledge that affirms “the value of experienced workers.” More than 1,000 companies have signed it. Halvorsen adds that older workers should be viewed as an asset in any workplace, but only if employers see it that way. Skills developed in declining industries can be transferable to growing ones, he says. For example, a supervisor at a shuttered manufacturing plant can still demonstrate leadership qualities at another line of work. Or older adults who have caregiving experience might consider transitioning careers to study to become social workers.

Nor are older workers less capable in major job sectors. For example, the stereotype that older workers are less fluent with digital technology doesn't square with employment sector data, Weinstock says. A 2019 AARP report shows that 36 percent of the technology workforce is over the age of 50, similar to education, finance and health services.

Better skills training and reducing the occurrence of age discrimination on the job are some of the AARP report's suggestions. A bipartisan bill making its way through Congress would ease the burden of evidence on workers filing age discrimination complaints in the workplace. The proposal, Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, passed in the House by a vote of 261-155.

That age discrimination even exists is counterintuitive, notes Halvorsen. “If we're lucky to grow older, it's age bias against our future selves."

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