WORKPLACE DIVERSITY : Job-Hunting After 40: Abridged Resumes and Touched-Up Hair : A maturing labor market and the issue of age bias in hiring are on a collision course.


Demographers say that next year, the median age of the American worker will hit 40. That’s also the age at which we become “older employees” and are protected by federal law from age discrimination.

“It’s a great law, but enforcing it is very difficult,” said Sally Dunaway, attorney in Washington for the American Assn. of Retired Persons, which claims 33 million members. “It’s prejudiced thinking that older workers can’t learn computers or new skills. A lot of time older workers get phased out because of stereotypes.”

As baby boomers age and the proportion of older workers swells, the issue of age figures to become a hotter topic. But for now that part of the diversity debate tends to be ignored, and age discrimination remains a subtle, though widespread, problem.


There were 30,604 age-discrimination lawsuits filed in the United States last year, up 24% from 1989, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In recessions, as companies shrink their employee rosters, older workers are often the first targets. An employer looks at an older worker “and thinks, ‘If I get rid of him, I can get three young people for the same price.’ What they overlook is the value of the person they’re losing,” said Anthony Buonocore, a diversity consultant in Mendham, N.J.

To older people on the unemployment line, job-hunting can seem to last forever.

Two years ago, Barry Moss, 67, of North Hills, was laid off as a mechanical engineer from a Bendix plant in Sylmar. Moss believes that he keeps running into age bias when he applies for work. “I suspect it. I can’t pin it down, but you take one look at me and I look too old.”

Moss has tailored his resume so it doesn’t reveal his age, but, he added: “I suppose they can do a credit check and tell my age.”

He needs work because he job-hopped so much that he earned only a tiny pension from one company, and he’s angry about the age handicap he faces.

“If I was a politician, I’d just start maturing at 70,” said Moss. When Ronald Reagan left the White House he was 77. “But for anything else, nobody wants you.”

Another unhappy job seeker is Dennis, 47. He filed an age-discrimination case against Hughes Aircraft after he was laid off at Christmas, 1991. Dennis, who lives in Redondo Beach, said he was the oldest person in his department and “when they cut back, I was the first one to be kicked out.”


Dennis tries to mask his age on his resume to better his chances of getting at least a job interview. He lists only a decade’s worth of his experience, even though he’s got 20 years worth. He does give the year he earned his MBA degree--1984--only because he’d gone back to school part-time and was then in his 30s. The MBA date, he figures, “throws them off a little bit.”

One thing he won’t do, even though he is graying, is dye his hair. “I do see a lot of younger people than myself doing that. You

can tell. Their temples are white; the rest is thoroughly black or brown.”

From shipping out hundreds of resumes, Dennis has had only half a dozen job interviews.

“I had one interview with a woman who was about 15 years younger than me,” Dennis said. “I knew right away from the look on her face I was in trouble. It was a short interview.”

Ray Cohn, publicist for Forty Plus of Southern California, a nonprofit organization for unemployed professionals and managers over 40, said that age bias is widespread.

“I don’t think there’s any question that it exists,” said Cohn, “and a lot of unemployed executives and professionals are afraid to talk about it for fear that future employers might hold it against them.”

One place to fight back, of course, is in court.

Charles T. Mathews, a Los Angeles attorney, is working on 14 age-discrimination suits. One past case involved a waitress, Lisa Marie Belanger, now 52, whom a jury awarded $596,500 in December, 1991. Belanger sued Otto Rothschild’s restaurant in Los Angles after she was laid off. Mathews said her case was settled out of court for less than the original judgment, but for “a substantial amount.”


Unique to age-discrimination cases, Mathews said, “is the cruelty an older worker goes through.” Losing any job is tough, but when it happens at an advanced age, the psychological impact “is almost like pushing you toward the grave.”

Why do older workers face so many barriers?

“There’s no government pressure as in other diversity groups. And it’s the one category that everyone gets to, regardless of race or gender,” Buonocore said.

One problem is stereotypes: Many managers believe that older workers get sick too often, are closed-minded and unwilling to change, that they have too many accidents on the job and that their mental capacity is declining. “The facts are just the opposite,” said Buonocore.

Indeed, some companies actively seek out older workers--not out of generosity, but because they are good for business.

Days Inn of America, the nationwide motel chain, began a campaign to hire more older workers in 1985.

“In the hospitality business there’s a tremendous job turnover, 140% a year,” said John Russell, Days Inn’s president.


About 40% of Days Inn’s customers are seniors, so the company began to hire older people for its reservation desk. The seniors “were very good on the phone,” Russell said. Turnover decreased and elder workers handled the job stress better than younger ones. “And if you have a problem and need somebody to stay, the seniors are the first to volunteer.”