Age discrimination at work is alive and well, study confirms

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Age stereotypes can strongly affect people’s choices about who to hire, research from psychologists at the University of Kent in the UK has shown.

If one of two equally well-qualified job candidates is described as having stereotypically ‘young’ characteristics, and the other has stereotypically ‘old’ characteristics, the ‘younger’ candidate is more likely to be selected, Martin Herrera writes in a piece published at the university news centre.

The research team, led by Professor Dominic Abrams of the School of Psychology, conducted a series of experiments in which people were asked to imagine they were running a firm and then to select the candidate who would help them to maximise their profits.

Participants were told about two equally qualified job candidates, whose strengths had been rated as equal by an independent set of judges, but whose age was not given.

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”Creative” young ones beat the ”careful” old ones

One candidate was described as having strengths that matched the ‘younger’ stereotype — being good at using IT, creative, good at learning new skills. The other candidate was described as having strengths that matched the ‘old’ stereotype – being good at understanding others’ views, settling arguments, and being careful.

The researchers found that participants consistently favoured the young profile. In fact, regardless of whether the job was for a long or short term, and whether it was for a supervisor or supervisee role, over 70% of participants preferred the young profile.

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Older candidates were more readily accepted as subordinates

Things only evened when participants were told that both candidates would be working for them but that they had to choose which should be the subordinate. In that case, 50% chose the ‘old’ profile to be subordinate.

The findings show that people’s unacknowledged assumptions about age and age-related capability can affect the way they view someone’s employability. If these assumptions affect employers’ judgements, it has serious implications for the fair chances of older workers to gain employment in new roles or workplaces.

This article is based on materials provided by the University of Kent. Content may have been edited for style and length.

The original research, entitled Old and unemployable? How age-based stereotypes affect willingness to hire job candidates (Abrams, D., Swift, H.J., & Drury, L), is published in the Journal of Social Issues.