New study proves it really is harder to find a job as you get older

The largest-ever study of age discrimination has found that employers regularly overlook middle-aged and older workers based only on their resumés.

The San Francisco Federal Reserve released the results of a comprehensive study that was designed to nail down one of the toughest problems in hiring: whether employers are willing to hire people over 49 years old. It’s a crucial question not just for workers who are getting older, but for the entire United States economy, because the huge Baby Boomer generation is at or near retirement age, and Gen X isn’t that far behind.

The key questions the Fed looked to answer: is age discrimination a broad trend in the U.S., and can it be proven?

The answers: yes, older workers are routinely ruled out for even low-skilled jobs. And yes, is also a real trend: the Federal Reserve sent out 40,000 resumés for 13,000 positions to show how widespread the problem is.

“There is a distinct pattern of callback rates being highest for the young applicants, lower for the middle-aged applicants, and lowest for the old applicants,” the researchers concluded.

Not only did employers skip over older applicants more often for all jobs, but “women face worse age discrimination than men,” the Federal Reserve said in a white paper.

In one example, older women received 47% fewer callbacks for administrative jobs than younger women. Men did not experience the same sharp, obvious differences in treatment from employers: “For male job applicants—in sales, security, and janitor jobs—there is also a lower callback rate for older men in general. But in this case the age pattern is not as consistent or pronounced.”

Why are older women getting fewer callbacks? It may not just be age, but looks.

“We do not have evidence on why age discrimination may be worse for older women, but it could be because applicant appearance matters in our sample of low-skilled jobs, and the effects of aging on physical appearance are evaluated more harshly for women than for men,” the researchers wrote.

That backs up previous studies that show that looks affect whether women get or keep a job, regardless of whether the women are considered beautiful or “unattractive.”

To test their theory, the Fed researchers created fake resumés in age groups including workers 29-31 years old for “young” workers, 49-51 years old for “middle-aged” workers, and 64-66 years old for the “older workers.” The resumés covered 13,000 positions, mostly low-skilled ones for administrative assistants, janitors and retail sales. They sent only women’s resumés for the administrative jobs and only men’s resumés for the janitorial ones, and both genders for the retail sales.

The Federal Reserve research noted that employers who discriminate on the basis of age are taking a big risk: “Whether such discrimination is based on outright dislike or stereotyping about group characteristics, it is illegal under U.S. civil rights laws.”