Ageism – the Big Elephant in the Room

We as a country have made a lot of progress in advancing gender diversity. Before 1920, women in the U.S. didn’t even have the right to vote. In 2020, a hundred years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, more and more women are sitting on corporate boards, winning congressional seats, and leading major corporations.

While we still have a long way to go to close the gender pay gap, we collectively are more aware of this issue and some are taking actions to eliminate the bias. For example, a couple of years ago, Salesforce, led by the courageous leader Marc Benioff, ordered an audit on salaries of all its employees. Subsequently, it spent about $9 million to address the pay differences based on gender, race, and ethnicity. This is an example of backing up the belief with money and putting employees before profits.

In recent months, with the rising racial tension and “Black Lives Matter” movement, racial diversity has certainly emerged as a hot social issue, prompting many companies to openly declare their position. Bank of America pledged $1 billion to fight racial inequality in America. Some companies, like Nike, are giving workers paid time off on Juneteenth, for the first time ever. Many CEOs took the time to express their support for racial equality in emails to employees, shareholding meetings, and prior to earnings announcements. While many are doubtful at the real impact of these headline-garnering gestures, at least these are getting people’s attention.

However, with all the attention to diversity — gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, we are missing one key element – age diversity.

This is not just an impression; it is backed up by facts. According to a study by PwC, only 8% of companies in the most diverse workplaces in Fortune magazine’s A Great Place to Work list consider age as a dimension of diversity.

Ageism, according to Marriam-Webster dictionary is, “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly” and is the big elephant in the room. Nobody wants to openly talk about it. When “older workers” apply for jobs, they attempt to skip questions regarding age, such as the year they graduated from high school or college or how many years on the job. However, smart algorithms in recruiting filters will deduct the age anyway. Career coaches suggest they change their hairstyle or dress differently to look younger for job interviews. When they are rejected from a job, “cultural fit” is used as the reason. Is it really? They were a cultural fit 10 years ago, why not now? What has changed?

Age-based discrimination has had a profound impact on the health of millions of older workers, jeopardizing their sense of well-being and retirement safety.

Does this issue garner headlines? Hardly. Do you hear corporate CEOs talk about hiring older people? Rarely.

Age-based discrimination is getting worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some facts on unemployment among older workers in America.

  1. The pandemic induced layoff has hit older workers harder. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for workers age 55 and older was 8.8% in July, compared to 8.1% for workers between the ages of 35 and 44, and 7.8% for 45-to-54-year-olds.
  2. Older workers unemployed before March or during the pandemic, were less likely to find employment again, which forced them to early retirement. According to the latest report from the New School, 2.9 million older workers aged 55 and older have left the workforce since March. Here is how the number is calculated. In March, out of the 1.3 million older workers unemployed, 500,000 gave up looking for a job by June. Between March and June, nearly 5 million older workers lost their jobs. Out of these, 2.4 million left the labor force entirely.
  3. Older workers of color and older women make up a larger share of those forced into early retirement. According to the report from the New School, among older people of color, nearly 12% of women and more than 10% of men have left the labor force since March – that compares with 7.5% for White women and 5% for White men. When ageism is layered onto gender and race discrimination, older minority women are the most vulnerable. According to statistics provided by Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER), In 2016, the poverty rate for African American women over age 65 was 15%, for Hispanic women it was 20%, for Asian American/Pacific Islander women it was 18%, and for white women, it was 7%.

In describing the persistent unemployment facing older workers, most headlines use the phrase “retire early” making it seem like a lifestyle choice. However, for most older workers, it is involuntary. Most of the older workers who are forced to “retire early” simply cannot afford it. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), in 2016 (latest statistics available), nearly half (48%) of households headed by someone 55 and older lack some form of retirement savings. When afforded the opportunity, they would love to work. But the opportunity is scarce.

Rather than labeling the older workers leaving the workforce as “retiring early”, why can’t we face the truth and call this as it is? Age-based discrimination is very prevalent in workplaces.

Older workers face discrimination not only when they are employed, but also when they are looking for jobs, enabled by algorithm-based recruiting tools.

In July 2019, Google settled an age discrimination lawsuit with more than 200 job seekers over the age of 40.  The $11 million suit included provisions for training against age bias and forming a committee with respect to hiring and recruiting and ensure that age-discrimination claims are fully investigated. Separately, in September 2019, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that seven companies used Facebook ads to target younger Americans and men for recruitment purposes, excluding women and older Americans.

Age-based discrimination, or ageism, is real, and it affects every family. The problem of “retiring early” without sufficient retirement savings is a social problem.  Consider the fact that by the year 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, more than double this number in 2010. This problem of “retiring early” without sufficient retirement savings can only get worse in the next 30 years.

These facts tell a sad story, but they are often muted. Although some research organizations (the New School, nonprofit organizations like WISER and AARP) are advocating for older workers, we haven’t seen a sense of urgency among policymakers and opinion influencers. That’s perhaps why ageism is the big elephant in the room – everyone knows but nobody wants to talk about it.


Jackie Luo
Jackie Luo
Jackie Luo is an investor and entrepreneur, with expertise in software and technology businesses. Most recently, as the CEO of a Maryland based SaaS (Software as a Service) company, Jackie was responsible for growing the company as an early innovator in SaaS and mobile technology profitably, before selling the business to a publicly-traded company in 2018. Currently, Jackie is the principal of her own consulting business BAM Advisory LLC, helping entrepreneurs to accelerate growth and maximize the value of their businesses by taking a holistic approach. She believes that we need to cultivate authenticity and growth mindset in order to realize our true potential as an individual, a parent, and a leader. Jackie was born and raised in China, fluent in both Mandarin and English. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business in the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, she lives in Virginia with her two daughters.

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  1. Very informative and insightful. Thank you.
    The stereotype of old age as a period of decline and decline in skills, associated with the increasingly widespread cult of youth, has resulted in an increase in the number of elderly victims of age discrimination, which occurs in many areas including the work context, the socio-health, mass-media and more generally intergenerational relationships.
    In order to deal with ageism, global, concerted and coordinated action is required, which includes campaigns aimed at supporting a change in attitudes and behavior, as well as actions aimed at developing support policies and adequate regulatory frameworks.

  2. Jackie,
    I am so grateful to see this article as well s Darlene’s article regarding the same. And I thank you both. Also Darlene, I am appreciative to note Melody Beach and the 50 Plus Job Seekers Group.

    This “ism” has been weighing heavily on my mind as of recent. I turned 65 in in April. As a breast cancer survivor, forcing me to “retire early,”I was blessed to have covered myself with disability insurance and have been able to live off of that for the past 10 years. Consequently however, under the terms of the policy, it ended as of my 65th birthday. Now, I am being faced with the reality of having to live off of my Social Security – which is considerably low and not enough to live on – due to being self employed for most of my adult working years. It’s a very sad and scary reality to know, that no one will hire me based on being a “health risk” and the age I am. And I’m divorced…so no other source of income to help. What are we to do? Go into a nursing home and totally give up our independence? Our government must address these issues far sooner than later. Maybe it’s not an accident mostly seniors are dying of Covid? No one knows what to do with US! Thanks again for your attention to this critical issue.

    • Thank you again dear Char! May your self-employment bring you more so you do not have to worry so much. May you and the rest of us who choose to work, be able to do so. Let me know if you ever want to have a conversation about this. 💖

  3. Love this article Jackie. Age discrimination is something that has been ignored far too long. Comments like, “Well you probably won’t be here much longer; Your premium on the health insurance policy is very high; When are you planning to retire? are both hurtful and illegal. Organizations are betting that a “senior” won’t fill a complaint. This has gotten worse during the pandemic. Thank you for keeping this issue on the forefront.

  4. Jackie, this article is timely and relevant. I was talking to a friend about this issue the other day, and that although I’m 49 and out of work, I feel like my age could work against me as I continue to seek employment. I especially get that feeling when I’m applying to positions where they ask what year I graduated and I’m unable to bypass the field. It’s already a tough and competitive market and this “ism” is real. I have a brother-in-law who is in his early 60s and facing a similar situation – except he’s feeling the force out at his current employer.

    I appreciate that you wrote about this topic, and I look forward to reading more of your work. In the meantime, I wish you well.

    • Laura, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. It is real, but nobody wants to openly talk about it. That’s why I wrote this article. Hope you are well too.

    • You’re welcome, Jackie. Indeed it is real, and I appreciate that you approached the topic in a candid yet thoughtful manner. I’m sure that there are many people who will connect with its relevance.

  5. Darlene, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I read your story… your mother was a good role model. I heard so many sad stories about women facing discrimination in old age… These are the women who have worked hard when younger, raised their families, but couldn’t go back to work at a meaningful job… Thanks for sharing the story.

  6. My other comment was completely wiped out so I am resending it. Thank you so much for this very timely and significant article. I am most appreciative that you are highlighting the forgotten “ism” which so many people ignore. I sent you a link to my article which you hopefully will find points to this issue. When I have time, I plan on reading this again and will send to friends who may be interested in it. One of them is Melody Beach who runs a 50 plus Job Seekers group. Thank you again!
    With gratitude,

  7. Thank you so much Jackie for this extremely significant piece of information. I have written on this topic from a personal perspective. Not long ago, Dennis generously published my article on BizCatalyst. I think you find it interesting. When I have more time, I plan on reading this again and sending to my friends who have an interest in this. One of my friends, Melody Beach, runs a group for 50 Plus Job Seekers. She will definitely be interested in this. I appreciate you highlighting this forgotten “ism.” Here is my article:

    With gratitude, Darlene