What is Age Discrimination?

Age discrimination is a persistent and unlawful form of employment discrimination that unfairly disadvantages someone based on their age.

This can encompass both older workers (typically defined as those 40 years or older) and younger workers, though federal laws primarily focus on protecting older employees from discriminatory practices.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), prohibits employers from basing employment decisions on an individual’s age [29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq.].

These decisions encompass the entire spectrum of employment experiences, including hiring, firing, promotions, layoffs, compensation, job training, and other privileges of employment.

The Prevalence of Age Discrimination

Unfortunately, age discrimination is a more common problem than many realize. Studies suggest a significant portion of the workforce experiences age bias during their careers. This bias can manifest in numerous ways, limiting a person’s employment opportunities and hindering their ability to secure jobs that match their qualifications and experience.

Why Does Age Discrimination Occur?

There can be several reasons for age discrimination. Stereotypes about older persons (a term sometimes used in the ADEA) often play a role.

Assumptions about their ability to adapt to new technologies, keep pace with physical demands, or be as innovative as younger workers can lead to bias.

Younger workers might be stereotyped as lacking experience or stability. These stereotypes are often unfounded and can create a discriminatory work environment that hinders morale and productivity.

The Impact of Age Discrimination

Age discrimination can have serious consequences for workers. A victim of age discrimination might experience missed promotions, be unfairly targeted for layoffs during corporate restructuring, or even face difficulty getting hired in the first place. This can have a significant financial impact and can also be damaging to a person’s self-esteem and career trajectory.

Federal Protections Against Age Discrimination

The United States has federal laws in place to protect workers from age discrimination. The ADEA, as mentioned previously, applies to employers with 20 or more employees and prohibits employers from basing employment decisions on an applicant’s or employee’s age when the person is at least 40 years old.

There is a narrow exception for certain bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQs). A BFOQ is a job requirement that is reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the business, and that age is a legitimate job requirement for the BFOQ. The EEOC provides guidance on how employers can establish a BFOQ.

State Laws and Additional Protections

Some states have laws that offer broader protections than the ADEA. These laws may protect younger job applicants from age discrimination or offer different time limits for filing charges with the appropriate state fair employment agency.

It’s important to check your state’s fair employment agency website or consult with an attorney to understand the specific laws in your jurisdiction that apply to your situation.

Identifying Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Age discrimination can be subtle, but there are some red flags to watch out for. Here are a few examples:

You are consistently passed over for promotions in favor of younger, less experienced colleagues, despite having demonstrably stronger qualifications. This could be evidence of discriminatory practices based on age.

You are laid off during a company restructuring while younger, less qualified colleagues keep their jobs, suggesting a pattern of selective reduction based on age rather than reasonable factors like performance.

Your employer offers generous early retirement packages that seem to target older workers in a way that incentivizes them to leave the company before they reach their full earning potential. This could be a violation of the ADEA’s protections against age limitation.

You are subjected to comments or jokes about your age that create a hostile work environment. This type of behavior can be a form of harassment and is a violation of the ADEA.

You are denied training or development opportunities that are readily available to younger workers. This can limit your ability to advance within the company and keep your skills current.

Combating Age Discrimination

If you believe you are experiencing age discrimination, there are steps you can take. You can file a charge with the EEOC or your state fair employment agency.

You may also be able to sue your employer in court with the help of an attorney specializing in employment law. The EEOC website offers a wealth of information on age discrimination and how to file a charge.

Why Don’t Workers Report Age Discrimination?

There are a number of reasons why workers might hesitate to report

Combating Age Discrimination

There are a number of reasons why workers might hesitate to report age discrimination. Fear of retaliation, lack of awareness of their rights under the ADEA and other civil rights laws, and the belief that nothing will be done are all common concerns.

It’s important to remember that the ADEA protects your eligibility for employment opportunities based on your qualifications, not your age. Workers who experience age discrimination should not be discouraged from reporting the violation and seeking legal recourse.

Resources Available to Workers

The Department of Labor (DOL) and labor unions may also offer resources and support to workers who believe they have been discriminated against based on age.

The DOL enforces various laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination in workplaces receiving federal financial assistance.

Workers can file complaints with the DOL if they believe their employer has violated these protections.

Taking Action Against Age Discrimination

If you suspect you are a victim of age discrimination, there are a few key steps you can take:

Gather Evidence

Document any specific incidents of discriminatory behavior you have experienced. This could include emails, memos, notes from conversations, or witness testimonies.

Understand Your Rights

Familiarize yourself with the ADEA and any applicable state laws. The EEOC’s official website offers a wealth of information on age discrimination, including your rights and how to file a charge.

File A Charge

You can file a charge of age discrimination with the EEOC or your state fair employment agency. There are strict time limits for filing a charge, so it’s important to act promptly.

Seek Legal Counsel

An attorney specializing in employment law can advise you on your legal options and represent you throughout the process, which may involve mediation, conciliation, or litigation.

Age discrimination is a serious issue, but there are laws in place to protect you. By understanding your rights and taking action, you can help to combat age discrimination in the workplace.

Additional Considerations

Age Discrimination and Employee Benefits

The ADEA also protects older workers from discrimination in terms of employee benefits. For example, an employer cannot offer a discounted health insurance plan only to younger workers.

Age Discrimination and Job Assignments

The ADEA prohibits employers from basing job assignments or other employment decisions on stereotypes about a person’s abilities or limitations based solely on age.

Age Discrimination and Job Applicants

The ADEA protects qualified job applicants 40 years or older from discrimination during the hiring process. This includes being passed over for a job in favor of a younger candidate with less experience or qualifications.


Age discrimination is a complex issue, but by raising awareness and understanding the legal protections available, workplaces can become fairer and more equitable for all employees, regardless of age.

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