Workers In Their Late 30s And Older Face Ageism In A Recession—Here’s How To Fight Back

by Guest Author, Jack Kelly

Ageism is a challenge for workers in their mid to late 30s. This issue should be of heightened concern, as everyone grows older and could be impacted by biases and prejudices in the workplace.

Companies are currently laying off workers and enacting hiring freezes in response to difficult economic conditions. There is a fear amongst experienced workers that they’ll be selected for downsizing due to their age. According to LinkedIn career experts, downsizing employees based on their age and preconceived notions about their abilities is a big mistake for organizations—not to mention illegal.

The career coaches offer insights into why businesses should not only avoid laying off older workers, but also celebrate the value this group brings to the table. There are also concerns raised that downsizing is not strictly due to age. Since older workers tend to earn more than their younger counterparts, they serve as a perfect target for when companies need to cut costs.

Why Older Workers Are Valuable To An Organization

Marti Konstant, keynote speaker and author of Activate Your Agile Career: How Responding To Change Will Inspire Your Life’s Work, believes that age diversity leads to better business outcomes—similar to how diversity and inclusion initiatives help a company perform better. According to Konstant, experienced workers can offer much-needed mentoring and coaching to younger generations. This relationship can aid in employee retention and cut down on attrition. It could also be mutually beneficial. Gen-Zers could offer their perspective to the Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers, which would help the company better understand the nuances of each other’s worldviews and work styles.

Career coach Alex Freund believes management is not laying off people because of their age—it’s all about the money. After spending decades in the corporate world, dispensing advice, lecturing and teaching, Freund has noticed that firms tend to let go of those who make the most money. There is a high correlation between the length of service of an employee and their overall compensation. Older workers generally earn more money compared to younger generations within the office. It’s all about saving money by cutting the higher-paid workers to reign in expenses, especially during volatile economic circumstances.

Jeff Altman, a former recruiter, turned career coach, echoes Freund’s assessment. He argues that ageism isn’t the first reason people are chosen as part of mass layoffs—cost is. In addition to the salary savings, Altman points out that when a person with 10 or 20-plus years of experience is let go, vast institutional knowledge walks out the door. When older workers are kicked out, it may lead to bad publicity. If a 50-year-old is unceremoniously terminated, they could post their discriminatory experience on social media, making the business look bad. The employees, seeing this happen, would realize that all the talk about diversity and inclusion is only talk and the company doesn’t really mean what it claims to promote.

Terrence Seamon has decades of career advisory experience. According to Seamon, seasoned employees are like libraries. Illustrating the point, he recalls a conversation with a colleague. In one of the downsizes he personally experienced, a co-worker sadly saw his colleagues being escorted out of the building and said, “They are burning down libraries.”

The experienced employees offer perspective on what has worked in the past, and the things that didn’t. Long-standing workers possess a wealth of knowledge about the firm’s products, processes, policies and procedures. When that walks out the door, the loss cannot be quantified.

Virginia Franco, a former journalist and now sought-after résumé writer, states that by having been in the workplace longer, there’s not much that can rattle an experienced worker. Being with a company for a decade or more offers perspective and the knowledge of how things played out in the past. A company that is bracing for a bumpy ride would be wise to keep folks around who are well-versed in weathering storms.

Ed Han, a corporate recruiter, says that experienced professionals offer some key advantages. People who have seen ups and downs can hit the ground running when things get tough. “They’ve known a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two,” he said. They have mentored people, and if the organization is ramping up an effort, they are a valuable source to other hires.

Their breadth and depth of experience come in handy when things go haywire. They likely have seen a broader range of approaches and efforts—both successful and otherwise—and have learned from them. This perspective can be quite valuable to employers.

Marty Gilbert, the founder and CEO of the NorthShore Executive Networking Group, claims that longstanding employees actually have an advantage compared to other generations. “A person of a certain age has been there and done that,” he said. They’ve dealt with corporate mergers and takeovers. They’ve learned the art of communicating effectively and helping younger staff reach their potential.

How To Fight Back Against Ageism

You are not helpless. People can take assertive, proactive measures to save their jobs and ultimately survive and thrive. Here is some advice on how to hold onto your job if you feel as if you might be picked for getting a pink slip.

Sweta Regmi advises her clients to keep an eye open for what past layoff trends looked like within their organizations. Look at who was laid off and those that were saved. If it turns out that workers in their late 30s and older were victims of layoffs, try to determine if this was due to outdated skills. If this is the case, you must ensure that your skills and talents are updated and relevant to your current role. In addition, upskill yourself by learning new talents that make you indispensable.

Self-reflect on ways to continually improve yourself. Get in touch with a coach to work on your rough edges. Speak with your manager. Let them know you love the firm and want to remain there. Inquire about what is needed to exceed expectations and add value to the organization. Explore with the boss a pivot or a lateral move to another role that may offer better growth opportunities.

Regmi points out that corporate leadership talks about diversity in the workplace. There’s a need for senior workers to mentor new hires and learn from and collaborate with the younger generations. Losing older workers may inhibit the business from flourishing. Management needs to recognize that experience is an asset, not a weakness.

Kenneth Lang, a well-known job-search mentor on LinkedIn, suggests that older workers position themselves as mentors for younger staff. These senior workers have the institutional knowledge to impart that can’t be found on YouTube or Google. Without the presence of veteran workers, past knowledge gets lost when someone is let go.

What Is Happening To Older Workers

The stock market and real estate boom over the last few years made Baby Boomers feel financially comfortable to quit their jobs, retire and enjoy their good fortunes. Now that real estate prices are declining, due to higher interest and mortgage costs, and the stock market is in bear territory, down around 25%, many are reconsidering their decision. They are concerned that it will be nearly impossible to find a new job because of their age.

According to a CNBC survey, more than 90% of retirees would return to work if the pay and position were fair and reasonable. However, it may not be so easy for this older cohort, as almost 80% of older workers say that they’ve had to deal with age discrimination, according to AARP.

The University of Chicago conducted a study showing that the virus outbreak derailed the finances and careers of people 50 years and older. Many seasoned professionals lost their jobs. Now, experienced workers need to worry about what will happen in a recession.

In a MarketWatch opinion piece, Brett Arends wrote, “Age discrimination in the jobs market, which is supposedly illegal, goes up in recessions. Some employers take the opportunity to ax experienced workers who are paid a reasonable wage, and replace them with cheap, desperate kids who will put up with anything.” Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research found “age discrimination rises hand in hand with the unemployment rate.” Older workers tend to be the last hired and the first fired.

Ways In Which Older Workers Are Targeted

If you check out the career sites of major corporations, you’ll be greeted with the fresh, shiny and happy faces of 23- to 33-year-olds. When you go to tech, startups and other “cool” companies, the young staffers wear beanies, jeans, T-shirts or hoodies. Once in a while, there will be a token, gray-haired person.

A significant way for businesses to save money and cut costs is to eliminate middle management. These are the 40-and-up group of folks. Roles are juniorized and middle managers are squeezed out. This means that mid-to-senior level jobs are eliminated and replaced with roles that only require three to five years of experience. You’ll notice the proliferation of job descriptions that only ask for candidates with a couple of years of experience, and the titles are at associate or analyst levels.

Companies relocate jobs to lower-cost states and locations outside of the United States, in another effort to save money. Businesses can pay considerably less money to workers in lower-cost locations and demand more of them. The older, more costly employees are not invited to move, as they possess too much experience and are asking for a salary that is greater than the band allows. Management believes that younger workers are only too happy to have a job and will do whatever is asked of them, as they desperately need to pay off their college tuition payments.

There is also an unconscious bias and sometimes not-so-hidden view that experienced workers will come aboard and want to take charge immediately. They’ll claim that they have all of the answers, as they’ve been working in the field for 30-plus years and boss the younger workers around.

It is said that people want to work with people who look like them. Young managers are uncomfortable with older workers, as they feel they don’t speak the same language, dress similarly and share the same sensibilities. They believe that they are out of touch with current trends.

Examples Of Ageism In The Workplace

Several high-profile age discrimination cases have been filed against top-tier corporations. In 2019, Google settled an age discrimination lawsuit concerning its hiring practices. More than 200 job seekers over the age of 40 who applied for positions at Google were awarded a settlement of $11 million. The tech giant was told to train employees and management about age bias, form a committee focused on age diversity—with respect to recruiting—and ensure age-related complaints are fully investigated to comply with the settlement terms.

Two months later, a legal complaint was filed by plaintiff Rodney Broome in Santa Clara County Superior Court, accusing Google of age discrimination and harassment. The claimant asserted that Google and one of its managers allegedly engaged in age discrimination.

The supervisor indicated in the complaint was accused of waging a campaign of harassment against the 72-year-old Broome and allegedly intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him because of his age. Allegations were raised that Broome was told by his boss that he was “old and slow,” called “grandpa,” acting as if he’s “in retirement mode” and berated as “a worthless piece of shit.”

At one point in time, companies could use Facebook’s job-platform screening tools to only show their job listings to job seekers of a certain age. It was alleged that some companies excluded older workers from ever seeing the job advertisements. Subsequently, a class-action lawsuit was filed alleging that the corporations utilized Facebook’s platform and analytics to share jobs with only younger prospective job seekers. Older potential applicants never had a chance to view the ad and, therefore, could not apply to the company.

In 2018, IBM terminated the employment of roughly 20,000 American employees over 40, amounting to more than 60% of its total U.S. job cuts. A class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of former IBM employees asserting age discrimination in its job cuts. In a cost-cutting initiative, Verizon, the largest telecommunications company, offered a “voluntary separation program” to its employees, which was alleged to be a means to a massive layoff of older workers.

If you look closely, you’ll see examples of age discrimination everywhere. Here is just a small sampling:

  • Job descriptions usually call for candidates with three to seven years of experience. You rarely see a job listing that requires 20 to 30 years of relevant experience.
  • Many job advertisements demand knowledge and competencies with technology systems and use technical terminology that may not resonate with older workers.
  • Using corporate titles, such as “associate,” dissuades older job candidates from applying out of embarrassment over taking a so-called junior role.
  • Corporate career pages routinely show pictures of cool, happy and young employees working in their offices. There’s a paucity of people with gray hair.
  • Hiring managers look at the candidate’s college graduation dates and don’t contact them.
  • The rapid increase of people freely saying derogatory terms, such as “OK, Boomer” to put someone down or calling a middle-aged woman “Karen” disparagingly.

Need more job search advice?

Join Our DiscussionDoes your linkedin profile need a makeover

For more insights and a community of like-minded professionals join our LinkedIn group Resume Help and Advice for Professionals and Executives

About the author: Jack Kelly is a CEO, founder, and executive recruiter at one of the oldest and largest global search firms. He is passionate about advocating for job seekers and his articles come from an experienced recruiter’s insider perspective.


  1. Alex Freund on September 13, 2023 at 6:51 am

    Thanks to Jack Kelly for putting together such a comprehensive list of career coaches providing outstanding advice.

    • Peter Newfield on September 16, 2023 at 2:59 pm

      He did a wonderful job!

  2. Jeff Altman on September 13, 2023 at 8:15 am

    Like all “isms,” ageism is wheeled out as an excuse, particularly during recessions under the guise of fit. How do you evaluate for “fit” both you and the person you are interviewing are both on good behavior and trying to impress one another? You can’t.

Leave a Comment