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4 Things Millennials Need to Know About Age Discrimination

Bias in the workplace a growing concern for generation as oldest members turn 40

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Some milestone birthdays come with highly anticipated perks. Turning 16 years old means you're old enough to drive in most states. Eighteen means you're old enough to vote. And 21 means you're old enough to drink alcoholic beverages.

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Other birthdays open the door to rights and privileges that, while certainly less well known, may turn out to be just as important. For instance, 40 years old is the age that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) starts to protect workers from age bias on the job. That's a big deal for millennials. Even though they still often are thought of as perpetually young, the oldest members of that generation—which includes people born in 1981 through 1997—turn 40 this year.

"Older millennials are still assumed to be young,” says Elizabeth Tippett, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. “I don't think we've yet seen what the stereotype version of older millennials is. It might be not being able to type as quickly on your smartphone or not being on TikTok or using Facebook too much? I don't know. We have yet to see what the stereotype older millennial is."

Part of where that perception of older millennials will be shaped is in the workplace. While age discrimination isn't something for members of the generation to look forward to, it is something they should be prepared for. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — the federal agency responsible for handling discrimination complaints — people ages 40-54 accounted for 37 percent of all age-discrimination complaints in 2017. While the age range within that group is significant, the percentage suggests that even among the youngest people protected by federal discrimination law, many are experiencing what they see as bias in the workplace.

In fact, recognizing that bias may be what's holding you back can be the key to unlocking job opportunities and advancing your career.

"A lot of people are shocked when age discrimination hits, because it's something totally new to them,” says Laurie McCann, senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation. “They've never really had to think about being treated unfairly or unlawfully in the workplace or anywhere."

Age bias in employment takes many forms

Firing someone because of their age or declining to hire someone based on age are two of the most recognizable ways that older workers may face discrimination in the workplace. But age bias certainly isn't limited to those two situations.

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"If you feel like you're being passed over for some plum assignments, if you've asked to go to training and you've been told the budget doesn't allow for it — yet you see a younger colleague being able to go to those trainings — that's when your radar needs to go up,” McCann says. “Nobody wants to think of themselves as getting older, but you need to put your pride aside and recognize that you could be facing discrimination based on your age."

Age bias may also occur in the form of comments by coworkers or other types of harassment in the workplace. The term “millennials” sometimes is cast as a pejorative, blaming that age group for any new trends or changes in American culture — everything from the rise of avocado toast to the end of shopping malls. But now that some members of this generation are old enough to be protected by the ADEA, comments blaming such things on millennials soon may no longer be acceptable on the job.

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They key is context. McCann advises millennials — and anyone else who thinks they may be experiencing bias at work — to keep records of any incidents.

"Keep a diary or journal of what you see if you start to suspect age discrimination,” she says. “Write down any comments that you're hearing, who said them and in what context, and who heard them."

Records like these are important if you ultimately decide to pursue any legal action, which you would begin by hiring a lawyer and filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Another way you could pursue your concerns about age bias is through a conversation with your supervisor or manager, or your company's human resources department.

A lot of people are shocked when age discrimination hits, because it's something totally new to them. They've never really had to think about being treated unfairly or unlawfully in the workplace or anywhere.

— Laurie McCann, senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation

Some industries can be worse than others

Just as each person has a unique experience with growing older, many professions have implicit biases about when someone may be less desirable due to the person's age.

"If you're in the tech industry, 40 might be old,” Tippett says. “Or, if you're working in a manual-labor job, you may be starting to get a lot of injuries and 40 starts to feel old. But in a lot of other sectors, a 40-year-old worker is just sort of reaching the height of their power in the workplace,” she says.

"In some industries, it hits people younger than others,” McCann says in agreement. She cites certain fields such as banking and accounting, advertising, and local broadcast news as other industries in which some workers may face age discrimination even before they turn 40. It's worth noting that while the federal age discrimination law starts at 40, some states have their own laws that may offer protection at younger ages. For example, New Jersey's law also protects workers age 18 and older from being discriminated against for being considered too young.

Age discrimination can start earlier for women

Research shows some millennial women already may have experienced age bias before their 40th birthday. One study by Texas A&M economist Johanna Lahey asked 150 people to rate a group of 40 résumés. The ratings for women's résumés started to drop sharply once the candidates’ age hit 36, while the ratings for men's résumés didn't start to drop until the men were in their 50s.

A similar study by David Neumark of the University of California, Patrick Button of Tulane University and Ian Burn of the University of Liverpool sent out more than 40,000 résumés to see how many responses they got from interested employers. The résumés for women got significantly fewer responses by the time they turned 50 than those for men roughly the same age.

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"Older women should almost be their own protected class, because age and gender intersect so much to cause unfair treatment to women in the workplace,” McCann says.

These studies suggest how important it can be to “age-proof” your résumé. That means removing details both obvious (graduation dates) and subtle (how your résumé is formatted) that might encourage recruiters to make guesses about your age. This article offers tips about how you can reduce age-related details on your résumé.

You can fight back against age bias

The key to beating age bias in the workplace is understanding that you have tools that you can use to make sure you are treated fairly, whether it's through your company's human resources process or through pursuing external legal action. Standing up for yourself is essential.

"Millennials already have always had this sort of identity of never having enough power in the workplace, and so they may have a hard time imagining being shoved out of power [through discrimination], because they never really felt powerful in the first place,” Tippett says.

Another way to avert age bias is to proactively take steps to prevent your colleagues from thinking of you negatively as an older worker.

"You shouldn't assume that it's going to happen, but you should be aware that it might,” McCann says. “Be ready to do everything in your power to not fulfill those stereotypes. Always continue to look for opportunities to learn new skills and expand your knowledge — and also take on new challenges. Step out of your comfort zone. Show that, even though you're reaching your 40s, you're not resting on your laurels. Show that you still expect to climb the ladder, and you're going to do everything you need to do to be that type of employee."

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