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Working Past 65: Opportunities And Challenges

Supported by AARP Phoenix

Arizona has long been a destination for older adults, with its pristine retirement communities and warm climate. But aging in America isn't what it used to be. The issue isn’t going away. We have to talk about it. This is Part VI of "The State of Aging in the Valley,"a series that explores the reality of an aging society.

It used to be 65 was the magic number for many American workers to retire. Now, with more people living longer, the number isn’t so firm.

Working Past 65

Nedda Shafir’s career began in kindergarten – as a teacher. After holding positions in school administration and district communications, budget cuts led her to self-employment.

“I’m a communications consultant,” she said. “My major client is the Pendergast School District.”

At the age of 66, Shafir continues to work for two reasons: one is financial.

“Almost 15 years ago my husband passed away,” she said. “Before he passed away we had double income, we were both working and when he passed away I was single and on my own. So my situation changed drastically and I needed to work.”

The other reason is professional.

“I really am excited and passionate every day about what I do,” she said.

Shafir said she’s fortunate her experience is valued in the education field, but she knows it’s not like that everywhere. She recalled helping a family member search for a job to supplement Social Security benefits.

“It was really hard for her to go into the workforce at 67-years-old and having to feel relevant and having to feel like she had something to offer when oftentimes people give her the notion that she’s not good enough and that somebody else is better because they are younger,” Shafir said.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967, he said men and women who needed to work and wanted to work were not being given a fair chance to work.

Fifty years later, those sentiments were echoed during a meeting of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Employers have been slow to innovate,” said Jacquelyn James, co-director of the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.

She told commissioners admitting bias is a critical first step, “Even as researchers we are told we cannot eliminate our biases. We have to make sure we recognize them and acknowledge them in our work.”

The Impact of Technology

Technology seems to be one of the most stubborn and subtle stereotypes older workers face.

EEOC Commissioner Charlotte Burrows said assumptions often block opportunities. “For example, references in job ads to ‘digital natives’ to specify, as a sort of code word for younger workers who presumably, the employer’s presuming, have superior technological skills."

The commission also hears complaints about technology being used to discourage or reject older workers. Laurie McCann, senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation, said it happens when applications require birth and graduation dates and when job sites allow employers to screen out applicants based on perceived ages.

“They enable them to be able to use a drop down menu to limit their search based on graduation date, which is very troubling,” she said.

Proving Discrimination

Proving discrimination during the hiring process can be tough. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court let a lower court ruling stand in the case of a 49-year-old manwho applied for a sales manager position. Later, he learned the company’s internal guidelines targeted candidates who were two to three years out of college and discouraged reviews of applicants who’d been in sales eight to 10 years.

The court ruled, in part, that the law only protects existing employees, not applicants.

During the EEOC meeting to mark the 50th anniversary of the ADEA, Patrick Button, assistant professor at Tulane University, shared results of a large scale hiring study for entry level jobs. Using similar resumes and changing ages and sex, his team compared job offer rates.

“We found there’s definitely age discrimination, particularly at age 65,” he said. “For older women, we actually see there’s an earlier onset of age discrimination.”

Earlier this year, the EEOC settled a lawsuit with the restaurant chain, Texas Roadhouse.

Federal officials had alleged the company had a history emphasizing the hiring of “young, fun, cute and bubbly people” and rejecting people age 40 and over to work as hosts, servers and bartenders.

In agreeing to pay $12 million to settle the claims that had been brought in 2011, Texas Roadhouse admitted no wrongdoing.

The EEOC said the company would change its hiring and recruiting practices.

Avoiding Age Bias

Last year, the EEOC filed two age discrimination lawsuits, the smallest number in at least 20 years. Advocacy groups said the agency needs to step up enforcementand employers need to create recruitment policies and interview panels that are age diverse.

While some think workplace training on generational differences could help, Laurie McCann with AARP does not because, “It still focuses on categorizing people and I think the message still has to be focus on the individual.”

Nedda Shafir agrees. She said the people she works with look at each others' skill sets more than ages. Her professional philosophy is to stay current.

“They don’t want to know what happened 60 years ago,” she said. “It’s not a history class. It’s a living, breathing, happening every day, relevant fast-paced world and you have to fit into it.”

It’s advice, she said, that works for any age.

Reach The Reporter

Christina Estes

More About The Sources

EEOC Age Discrimination

Center on Aging and Work at Boston College

AARP Foundation Litigation

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the Pendergast School District.

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.