Don’t Let Age Discrimination Ruin Your Job: Lessons from the Pandemic


The ADEA is Toothless

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act is now over 50 (just like many of the people it was written to protect). Passed in 1967 and modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADEA is supposed to prevent workers over 40 from being denied employment or from being let go on the basis of their age. Here’s what the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) says on their website:

The law prohibits discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.

Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, the devil is in the details – and the way the courts are interpreting the law.

When I took a closer look at the ADEA in 2019, it was becoming clearer and clearer that courts were siding with businesses and against workers.

While older workers are prevailing in a number of cases, in general the courts are making age bias harder to prove, with judges willing to give employers a break – particularly in a volatile economy.

Employer Impunity – and Arrogance

Companies have gone to great lengths to disguise their age bias in the past. So I think it is reasonable for us to assume that they will continue to do so as we all lurch through the ongoing waves and stages of the pandemic.

Expect that the big difference will be their complete indifference to the consequences of their behavior. They will act as if they are exempt from prosecution for ADEA violations, or will hide behind the healthcare costs and risks of retaining or hiring older workers.

Remember the much-reported case of IBM firing aging managers, and then falsely holding out hopes of them getting rehired as contractors? After promising these positions, IBM actually instructed recruiters and hiring managers to NOT hire their former employees.

For every high-profile IBM that gets called out, imagine how many companies get to fly below the radar. Imagine how the pandemic is empowering and will continue to empower companies to circle the wagons at the expense of older workers.

Trend #1: Look for the courts to increasingly turn a blind eye to age discrimination, and for companies to be more brazen as they continue to discriminate.

Marginalizing & Misperceiving Older Workers

Economist Teresa Ghilarducci of The New School forecasts that the pandemic will wind up pushing over three million older workers into poverty in retirement. She is the co-author of the May 2020 Retirement Equity Lab “Status of Older Workers” report. Lower wage earners, as in other sectors of the economy, are particularly vulnerable. They will simply be unable to replace enough of their pre-retirement income through continued employment.

On a July 2020 livecast from The Longevity Project at Stanford University, geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson sounded the alarm about the change in perception of older people as a result of the pandemic:

Only about three percent of older people live in skilled nursing homes and the fact that nursing homes have been the sites of so much death has, I think, reinforced the notion that all of old age is old and frail.

Also on the panel, Paul Irving, Chair of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, called out the slow progress American companies have made in promoting a multi-generational workforce.

Workers 65 and older make up 20% of the U.S. workforce. The over-50 consumer market represents around 50% of all consumer spending. So why are businesses not making the connection between the demographics of the American market and the makeup of their own employees?

This maddening irony highlights the lack of leadership and vision we are witnessing at all levels of government, media, and business. It is truly perplexing that no one seems to have put 2+2 together here.

Ensuring workforce participation across all generations is an economic driver that could lift the economy.

The Covid Career Challenge

If you are lucky enough to still have a job, now is the time to be a superstar. You want to show you’re flexible, collaborative, helpful and a team player.

Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies

My colleague Richard Eisenberg filed a comprehensive report on the career prospects for older workers as the pandemic was cratering the global economy in May,2020. Titled “The Pandemic Paradox.” It defined the scary Catch 22 for older workers who are statistically more susceptible to being hit more severely by the virus.

As he explains it, if we’re feeling more vulnerable, showing up at a re-opened workplace is going to be anxiety-producing and might impact our ability to do our work. But sharing our concerns with our employer might sow doubt and make it more likely that we’ll be let go. If we share our concerns before returning to the office, that might also trigger a layoff.

Clearly there are no easy answers to our predicament. But we still have to figure out a way to act on Catherine Collinson’s admonition.

So, for older workers with a job, Covid is looking largely like a no-win situation. Add lax social-distancing, the politicization of mask-wearing, and ageism into the mix, and it’s easy to see how in some organizations older workers will become scapegoated – and with impunity.

Trend #2: Expect workers over 50 to be dismissed as vulnerable, at-risk, and therefore risky hires. This bias will in many cases eclipse any willingness to consider older job applicants "on the merits."

Two Kinds of Denial: It’s Our Fault, or I’m Not One of Them

Louise Aronson in her panel discussion also points out one of the more insidious phenomena emerging from this situation. Facing an inhospitable, if not hostile work environment, many workers will be tempted to blame themselves for the age bias that’s directed their way.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, many of us try to maintain a façade of agelessness. We assert that we are no different from how we were twenty years ago. “60 is the new 40!” It is true that many 60-year-olds today are looking at a longer, healthier life – with a decade or two of additional career ahead of them. But denying our age and our wrinkles is just allowing ourselves to get co-opted by the youth culture that wants to deny the value of age.

I was struck earlier this year by this unfiltered reader comment in the New York Times for an article about ailing older patients.

The great majority of these old people are no longer productive members of society but takers, especially of expensive resources like medical care and other social benefits. They’ve outlived their usefulness and are more and more expensive to maintain. Their time has come. Nice knowin’ ya. Bon voyage.

The callousness of this comment is certainly emblematic of our polarized culture.

But it is also is a reminder that age bias is indiscriminate in its discrimination. It is going to target all of us, whether we’re dealing with a chronic health condition or winning a marathon.

We are all subject to its toxic and corrosive effects.

Trend #3: Increased levels of age discrimination will pressure us to either give up on ourselves, or scramble to deny our own aging.

We have to learn to accept ourselves and stand together. We need to proudly advocate for the value that aging holds in store for us, and the value that it holds for younger generations and for society at large.

Steps to Flip the Script

So here’s the prescription section. How are we going to go forward into 2021?

As Charles Kettering, the first head of R&D at General Motors, is often quoted as saying:

If you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong.

We’re not going to win these battles by going head to head with the perpetrators.

It won’t be possible to somehow persuade companies overnight to reverse their age discrimination bias.

Hiring managers and their teams won’t suddenly ignore the perceptions that have been drilled into their heads about older workers’ vulnerability.

Finally, there will be no magical re-appraisal or re-appreciation of older workers that will lift our spirits and restore our feelings of well-being and acknowledgment for the value that we bring to the career table.

We’re going to get through this by not doing it the way we’ve always done it.

This includes not sending our resumes out to countless job postings online and expecting a response.

It includes cultivating and relying on a network of trusted colleagues. And we have to meet new, engaged, and aligned contacts to ferret out and get referred to opportunities and networks where we can demonstrate and be valued for our usefulness.

Most of all, it’s going to require that we shift into a higher gear. We will need to apply greater commitment and resilience to persisting through our challenges. We really have to step it up a notch.

Take an inspirational shot of encouragement from marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk’s video. You don’t have to be a so-called “digital native” to take advantage of the awesome business tools that are available to everyone. In fact, as Gary V says, older workers may be even better-suited to success in this environment than younger workers.

Tactic #1 – Embrace Uncertainty for an Unprecedented New Normal

We can all stand to become a bit more at ease with the increased amount of uncertainty in our world and in our lives. My favorite writer on the topic is Pema Chodron, and her book Comfortable With Uncertainty. One of the great aspects of the book is its format – 108 short lessons to remind us of how we can endure through uncertainty, and build the strength to prevail. Read one every morning before breakfast to remind yourself that you are more than the feelings you experience. Especially as someone who is older and has lived through a lot, you have the wherewithal to get through this.

Now more than ever, if we are going to be of any use to ourselves and to others, we have to take care of ourselves, our feelings, our bodies – all aspects of what makes us whole. It will be the only way that we’ll be able to show up for others and actually get anything done.

Tactic #2 – Overcome Networking Fatigue

For someone who touts networking and business relationships as the number one career development practice, I think I need to uplevel my outreach beyond what I’ve been doing. The current situation demands it.

For many of us, the “new normal” has brought a sense of isolation and disconnection that can also veer ever so slightly into paranoia. How many of you are wondering what’s going on with a particular friend or colleague that you haven’t heard from in weeks or … months?

Do you wonder whether others on your work team are holding Zoom meetings that you’re not invited to? It was harder to do that sort of thing at the office. Now, it’s a lot easier to keep secrets…

Zoom fatigue is real. The same-ness of our video conferencing rhythms and the rooms we work and talk from are creating a new kind of fatigue and ennui.

Even if we meet up in person, it is not with the same sense of relaxation and undistracted sense of purpose that we had pre-pandemic.

Email is great when it’s part of a toolkit that includes in-person, face-to-face meetings. But on its own, as the exclusive messaging venue (OK, include SMS, Slack, Whatsapp, and whatever other systems you’re using), it’s getting old. I don’t think I’m the only one that is often simultaneously addicted to and repelled by my Inbox.

Get Back on the Phone

So I’m going to be totally radical here and suggest something truly retro: pick up the phone.

Back in my talent agent days in Hollywood, I would make upwards of 50—75 calls a day. High-powered agents and execs in “the Biz” will “roll calls” with their assistants lining up callers on “hold” in order to rip through dozens more calls at a machine-gun pace.

So it makes sense that if we’re feeling isolated and looking to reconnect with our connections, drive more business, stay abreast of the latest business happenings, and even just shoot the shit and tell a few jokes, we should go back to the phone.

We’ve gotten so used to drinking the technology Kool-Aid and buying into the gee-whiz factor of video conferencing that I think we’ve lost the magic of communicating with just our voices.

Think back to the calls we used to have. Hours on end with a close friend or a significant other. Remember the shock of seeing a long-distance charge on your bill (“I couldn’t have talked that long!”).

Use the phone to scale your communication and collaboration in a way that is easier and more effective than the formality of either email or video conferencing. Sure, you’ll get back to playing phone tag. But you’ll be making so many calls that you’ll rediscover the rhythm of working on the phone. And you’ll re-establish the intimacy and the currency you’ve been missing with your colleagues and friends.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of just your voice. Without the visual cues or distractions of the video call, you’ll be able to concentrate on just what’s being said. You’ll rediscover the nuance of using your own voice to make a point, to persuade someone to consider a proposal, to conjure up an image or a story that helps deepen the bond you share with your caller.

Tactic #3 – Let Your Freak Flag Fly

Dare to do something different. You’ve earned the right to be uniquely you.

Don’t feel like you have to shrink back or play it safe because you’re older and we’re in a pandemic. This may be the perfect time to share parts of you that you’re not used to sharing. You may actually have wisdom that can make a difference in other people’s lives.

Defying expectations doesn’t mean you have to come off as eccentric or a poseur (aging hipsters are just as annoying as younger hipsters). You don’t have to change your wardrobe, your hairstyle, or anything on the outside. But you could commit to finally adopting some of the self-honoring habits you’ve been yearning to adopt.

You could change your daily or weekly schedule around. Dare to work the way you want to and at your preferred pace.

Set new boundaries and protocols with the people you work with. Be forthright and upfront about the changes, and explain how it’s going to improve the quality of your work. Hint: it’s because you’re going to be more invested in it…

Allow yourself to fully embrace the aspects of your personality and your story that don’t fit the mold. Much of the work that I do with my clients involves synthesizing and integrating the parts of their life that they’ve censored or omitted from their resumes.

Embrace the hobby or the obsession that you’ve compartmentalized. Bring it out into the open and explore ways to incorporate it into your work.

Stop putting off the bucket list project or projects you’ve pushed into the background.

What is Your Splash Plan?

Have you ever made a one-year plan? I’m not talking about some silly New Year’s Resolution. I’m talking about looking ahead to the next twelve months and setting some achievable goals that can happen regardless of what’s going on in your external life or career. You may not fully achieve them, but if you don’t define them, then you’ll never make any progress towards them.

Yes, we’re all going to be buffeted by the ongoing volatility and uncertainty. But inside you, there can be a calm and determination to hold your focus and stay on your path.

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

Lewis Carroll

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


  • Hey John came across your piece caught my eye on ageism in our society despite all the talk about “diversity” etc there is no such talk about age inclusivity. In my field education I say there is a preference for youth that can connect with today’s generation unless you reinvent immerse yourself in youth culture maybe you have a shot at keeping your job. Best way is to be a solopreneur where your service is of high value to all age groups.

    • Agreed, Phil – I think particularly as we get older, it becomes harder to fit neatly into the boxes that employers create. So something more entrepreneurial is in order.

  • A really timely and needed post! The quote -” If you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong.” is so true, particularly now in the midst of uncertainty from COVID. The tactics are right on the money and for me reinforce my need to take action. Thanks again for this post and your work.

    • Thanks, David! Appreciate your supportive comment. Please stay in touch and keep me posted on what other ideas you find or develop to help all of us get through this with our heads above water!

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