Facing Age Bias? Don't Let It Hold You Back

Gail Belsky career reinventionI know a few people in their 40s and 50s who reinvented themselves the old-fashioned way: They went back to school. One became a high school teacher. Another became a psychologist. And a third went through an extensive wine certification program and became the marketing director for a wine retailer.

School is like the Play-Doh factory of career reinvention; you go in one way, and come out as something completely different. There's no guarantee that you'll succeed in your new form, but at least you've got the credentials.

And I thought there was also another benefit: Starting from scratch with a brand new degree puts you on equal footing with younger job candidates, who are also starting from scratch with a brand new degree. In other words, no age issues.

So, a few months ago, when I ran across a graduate program that offered digital media courses and the possibility of a full fellowship (covering tuition, and a stipend), I was definitely interested. Then I talked to someone familiar with the program, and she told me that the company tended to give the fellowships to "younger" students.

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It was stunning to hear someone say that out loud, but beyond that, it made no sense. What difference does it make if I'm a 25-year-old starting out or a 50-year-old starting over? And isn't this ageism -- and against the law?

I don't know whether this fellowship would be covered under standard employment law, but in typical employment situations, it's illegal to make age-based assumptions and decisions when hiring people over 40. That's the law. But what is happening in the real world?

I posed that question to Carl Van Horn, the director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, and the author of a new book called Working Scared (Or Not at All). When it comes to age issues, "employers are pursuing their best interest," says Van Horn. Primarily, they don't want to spend money to train older workers who may leave before they see a return on their investment.

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Over the past 15 years, Van Horn and his researchers have interviewed 5,000 older workers and 1,000 employers. As he explains it, large corporations, in particular, worry that older workers will either retire, or jump ship sooner than younger ones would. (Carl Van Horn was a guest on AOL Jobs' Lunchtime Live program Friday. Watch the highlights.)

"The perception is that when you hire someone who has earned a lot more and has more experience, they're going to make a leap toward greener pastures," says Van Horn.

Really? When I was a young worker, the only way to get big pay increases was to change jobs, which I did numerous times. Now, I have my children's college tuitions to pay, and retirement to save for. I'm looking at least 15 more years of work, and I'd rather do it in one place. How many 30-year-olds would say that?

I have no idea if the company with the fellowships really has a preference for younger workers, and I probably won't have the chance to find out. Right now, I have to pursue my best interest, which is making a living. And of course, if age did keep me from getting in, I would never know it for sure.

What about you? How has your age worked against you in the labor market -- or applying to degree programs?

Age Discrimination in the Corporate Setting

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