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Age Bias in Job Postings Hurts Older Workers, Study Finds

Stereotypes and subtle phrases can keep workers from applying for jobs they could fill

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The days when help-wanted postings could explicitly say people 40 and older “need not apply” may be gone, but biased language continues to lock experienced workers out of jobs, according to new research.

Employment experts have long said that job postings containing phrases that are subtly ageist can deter older adults from applying for those openings. For example, “cultural fit” might mean that the employer is seeking people who are close in age to the people who already work there. “Energetic person” could imply the business wants to hire someone younger who is physically active.

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Terms like these are common in job postings, AARP found a few years ago. But proving that language like this actually prevents older job seekers from even applying for those jobs has been trickier. That’s where the new study comes in. Researchers from the University of California-Irvine and the University of Liverpool spent a year posting job ads in 14 cities nationwide to see how ageist stereotypes might affect who would apply. Their experiment, released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that older adults were in fact much less likely to respond to job postings that included ageist language.

“Using language that explicitly deters older workers from applying is already illegal” under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the researchers say, “but the subtler usage of ageist language that we study suggests that job-ad language that would not be flagged as explicitly illegal can still have pernicious effects on older workers.”

Older workers feel the impact of this age bias in two ways. First, of course, they miss out on jobs that they might be qualified to fill but that perceived bias prevents them from applying for. Second, this type of bias is largely overlooked in age discrimination law. Even though ageist language can deter people from job opportunities, as the new study finds, these job seekers have hardly any pathways to fight back legally.

Raising awareness of the possible harm biased job postings produce is one way to help older job seekers.

“When it comes to attracting a diverse slate of candidates, words really do matter,” says Heather Tinsley-Fix, the senior adviser who leads AARP’s Employer Pledge Program, which works with companies to build age-friendly practices. “Even if employers don’t mean to deter older candidates from applying, phrases like ‘high energy’ or ‘super fun’ or ‘you’re a marketing ninja’ can send a message to older candidates that they won’t be welcome.”

How this real-world experiment worked

To test whether biased jobs postings deterred older workers from applying, the researchers spent 54 weeks posting ads for jobs available in 14 cities: Birmingham, Alabama; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Houston; Los Angeles; Miami; Minneapolis; New York; Phoenix; Salt Lake City; San Diego; Sarasota, Florida; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

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Aiming to post jobs that are known to be popular with older workers, the researchers placed ads for positions as administrative assistants, retail salespeople and security guards. Focusing on age-related stereotypes about the communication skills, physical ability and technology skills of older workers, they created multiple postings for each position.

In the first type of posting, the required skills for the job were closely edited to minimize age-biased language (“You must help to clean and organize the store”). The second type of posting for the same position used terms that were potentially ageist, for instance emphasizing software programs older adults are stereotyped as being less comfortable using (“You must use software such as Microsoft Office/Excel or Google Sheets”). The third type of ad for a position described the same required skills using terms that AARP previously has identified as biased (“You must be a digital native and have a background in social media”).

For each application they received, the researchers estimated the applicant’s age based on information such as graduation dates and years of work experience. They also promptly notified applicants to let them know the postings were for a study and not a real job.

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The experiment essentially found that the more ageist the language of the job posting, the less likely older workers were to apply for that position. Job postings that contained language that was subtly ageist caused a drop of 12 percentage points in the share of applicants age 40 and older. There was a 15.6 percentage point drop in the share of older applicants for postings that used terms that AARP previously has identified as being highly ageist.

The study lends new evidence to concerns about the impact ageist job postings might have on the job opportunities available to older workers.

Language in job ads “that deters older workers from applying for jobs can have roughly as large an impact on hiring of older workers as direct age discrimination in hiring,” the study says.

The study offers an opportunity for more employers to consider how the language of their job postings shapes the pool of applications they receive.

“It’s important for employers to review the language of their job postings to ensure that they list concrete skills and experience, rather than cultural attributes that can masquerade as the need to fit in,” Tinsley-Fix says.

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