Job Ads Signal Young Workers are Preferred

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The Age Discrimination and Employment Act states that job ads “may not contain terms and phrases that limit or deter the employment of older individuals.”

Yet some job ads do just that. One ad posted in 2014 sought applicants with “3 to 7 years (no more than 7 years) of relevant legal experience.” More often, employers use subtle language in their ads, asking, for example, that the applicants be “energetic.”

This subtle strategy is highly effective, according to researchers at the University of Liverpool and the University of California at Irvine.

In their field experiment using fake job ads that contained subtly discriminatory language, older workers submitted applications at significantly lower rates than younger workers. Job ads designed to deter older applicants “can have roughly as large an impact on hiring … as direct age discrimination in hiring,” the study concluded.

This research may have less relevance at the moment since unemployment is at historic lows and employers have been desperate for workers. But the economy has slowed in recent months and age discrimination in hiring is a well-established issue in the labor force.

The goal of this new study departs from past research on age discrimination in hiring, which focused on employers that get ample applications from older workers but then discount them as candidates. This new study highlights a different concern – that job ads with subtly discriminatory language discourage them from applying in the first place.

The researchers created and posted 18 fake job ads in each of 14 U.S. cities from New York City to San Diego to test who would respond to implicitly discriminatory language. The disparities in applicants’ ages were stark whether the discriminatory ads were generated by computers or were based on language that AARP has identified is ageist.

Three jobs were advertised: administrative assistant, retail worker, and security guard. Based on language used in real-world ads, the fake ads used age stereotypes that are recognized in the psychology profession.

The requirements for each job were largely identical but differed in a few required skills. In the ads designed to put off older workers, the researchers inserted job descriptions that appeal to younger workers or sprinkled in the names of technology platforms that frequently appear in actual ads but that older workers are less familiar with. The responses to the ageist ads were compared with responses to the ads that appealed to applicants of all ages by using neutral language or avoiding mention of technology platforms.

One ad for an administrative assistant, for example, was designed to deter older applicants by saying they “must be up-to-date with current industry jargon and communicate with a dynamic workforce.” The job ad free of age stereotypes emphasized that the applicant should be “good at working without supervision.”

A retail sales job listed technology platforms like Google Sheets, a next-generation version of the Excel spreadsheets older workers are more likely to have used. The neutral task description was prosaic: “clean and organize the store.” One ad for a security guard said applicants “must type patrol entries into a journal application on a computer system.” A companion ad described the same task as writing “patrol records in a journal.”

The typical people who applied for the stereotyped job ads were significantly younger than the people who applied to ads using age-neutral language.

The researchers suggested that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces anti-discrimination in hiring laws, deal head-on with this subtle but insidious form of ageism.

The EEOC could accomplish this, they said, by either providing more guidance to employers to clarify the problems with the use of ageist language in ads or by investigating some of the firms that use this strategy.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here.  This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. 

1 comment

Wow, “as large an impact on hiring … as direct age discrimination”. Administrative assistant, retail worker, and security guard types of jobs have a statistically high worker turnover. I am 50 years old and I know more about computers than many young people. I also know that I won’t even be considered for many jobs. At 50 I have plenty to offer and my life experience comes free because they won’t pay me more for it.

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