The fact that it is noteworthy is, perhaps, itself significant.
Mike Smith won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, becoming the second-oldest jockey to win in the tournament’s history. Only William “Bill” Shoemaker, who won the race at age 54 in 1986, was older. “I just kept a leg on each side of him and my mind in the middle,” Smith said after winning. “Mike Smith’s victory at the Kentucky Derby reminds us all of an important point: Experience is a winner,” the advocacy group AARP said in a statement.
He made it sound easy, of course. And while age discrimination persists in many companies that value youth, baby boomers are holding their own in the workplace.
The workforce participation rate for over 55s has climbed over the last two decades. It was 39.8% in March 2018 and, while that’s less than the overall labor participation rate of 62.9%, it’s up from 30% two decades ago. Studies have shown it takes longer for boomers over 50 to find work, but a 2016 study by the Center for Retirement Research found that “employment opportunities for mid-50s job-changers “are reasonably similar to opportunities for prime-age workers.”
“The shift away from defined benefit pensions has eliminated one barrier to hiring older workers, because employers no longer face the burden of back-loaded benefit accruals,” it found. “Older workers are no longer less educated than younger workers and could thus be more attractive to employers.” What’s more, boomers may be more likely to hire boomers. “Applicants are evaluated by older hiring managers, who tend to value older workers more than younger managers,” it added.
For most people, peak earnings come in their 50s
Peak earnings for men come in their early 50s. By his mid-50s, the median male worker is making approximately 127% more than at the outset of his career, according to a 2015 report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Women, however, still earn around 83 cents on the dollar compared to men, and their career trajectories are more difficult to follow as they’re more likely to take breaks from paid work to have children mid-career and/or to look after aging relatives.
Baby boomers, given their relative experience, also earn more than their younger cohorts. Take information technology professionals, a job that requires a high level of technological skills. Boomers in that industry have a median annual wage of $70,000 a year, compared to $65,000 a year for Generation X and $50,000 for millennials, according to a recent survey of more than 2,000 IT workers by Spiceworks, a professional network for IT workers in Austin, Texas.
“Older workers have, for the most part, become adept with technology that created a barrier in both attitudes and skills,” said Steve Langerud, a workplace consultant and principal of Steve Langerud & Associates in Grinnell, Iowa. That, he said, is helping to close the gap between older and younger workers. Older workers are also attractive for employers who require people to maintain flexible schedules and work remotely with little direct supervision, he added.
True diversity covers gender, ethnicity and age
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects workers and job applicants aged 40 and over from age discrimination and applies to employers with at least 20 employees, government agencies, employment agencies, and labor organizations with at least 25 members. Most U.S. states actually have stronger age-discrimination laws that apply to employers with fewer than 20 employees. Still, age bias by hiring managers is both difficult to detect and prove.
There have been some key discrimination cases related to language. Terms such as “sluggish” and even “fuddy duddy” have been identified as code for ageist language as happened in this 2010 case in Wisconsin. In it, a 50-something manager was terminated by an executive 20 years younger who used these phrases. Even casual remarks made by an employee who was not a hiring manager, “may be used to bolster claims of discrimination,” according to the law firm Reed Smith.
Companies are increasingly focusing on diversity, said Scott Dobroski, a community expert at career site Glassdoor. And while ethnic and gender diversity are top priorities, particularly in light of the public reckoning that has taken place around #MeToo, more companies are looking at how hiring managers treat older applicants. “We know many employers are focused on eliminating bias in their hiring practices, which can include ageism,” he said.
Some industries are more ageist than others
Still, over-50s have a hard time getting hired in Silicon Valley, according to research by Visier, a cloud-based analytics platform for human resources professionals. The analysis of over 63,000 tech workers and 267,000 workers found that boomers (aged 52 to 70) are 60% less likely to be hired than their workforce representation in tech and non-tech fields. To put that in context: Millennials are being hired nearly 50% more than their workforce representation.
In one recent study, according to the AARP bulletin, researchers sent over 40,000 résumés to 13,000 job openings in a dozen cities around the country. Even though they sent three résumés representing three different age groups—young, middle-aged and senior—the senior candidates received fewer callbacks than the younger workers. That too showed that it’s difficult to legislate to protect job applicants, given that the process is so subjective and lacks transparency.
During the last recession unemployed men aged 55 and over were unemployed five to six weeks longer in states with stronger discrimination laws. Before the recession, however, men aged 55 and over looking for jobs in states with stronger state anti-age-discrimination laws—California’s law, for instance, has lower requirements than the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act to receive compensatory and punitive damages—had a median search that was 4½ weeks less than younger job hunters.
There are many Mike Smiths looking for an opportunity in their 50s. “If you match an older and wiser jockey or worker with a top horse or technology, you can win the big races,” Langerud said.