Could Ageism Be Behind Some COVID Layoffs? Why These Experts Think So

COVID Is No Excuse for Workplace Ageism — Why Today’s Layoffs Could Be Hitting Older Workers Harder


Profile Picture
May 28, 2024 at 8:10AM UTC

As the world is adapting to what is now the “new normal,” Fairygodboss wants to be there for you every step of the way. Keep reading for timely advice and join our Navigating the New Normal group for continued support.

It’s no secret that COVID’s economic blows are hitting women hardest. April unemployment numbers show that women accounted for 55 percent of all jobs lost that month, with women of color faring the worst — unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic women now sit at 16.4 and 20.2 percent, respectively. (Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for men, across races, is 13 percent.)

It’s enough to lead some, like C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, to call the current state of things a “shecession.” And unfortunately for older women, there’s reason to think this surge in joblessness, rivaled in numbers only by the Great Depression, could target them especially. 

As people continue working, by choice or necessity, for longer than they have in any prior generation, the aging workforce in the U.S. has grown considerably. Last year, AARP reported that employees aged 65 and older made up the fastest-growing segment of America’s workforce. But the coronavirus has already flipped that pattern significantly. In April, the number of unemployed Americans over the age of 55 jumped to a startling 13.6 percent — when in March, this number had been only 3.3 percent. 

While COVID-related layoffs, furloughs and cuts to hours have impacted workers across age groups and identities, some are left questioning whether their companies’ choices around who stayed and who didn’t were influenced by ageism.

“Age discrimination is real.”

“Age discrimination is real,” one anonymous FGB’er shared. “I was one of three employees terminated at the beginning of COVID-19, which was the reason given us for being let go. We were the oldest and most experienced in the office — two aged 63 and one aged 53.”   

According to Forbes, some employers may try to use the mantle of COVID-caused layoffs as a “pretext for age discrimination.” 

“A small subset of employers may decide that, even though mass layoffs are not necessary, they will still lay off certain, older employees,” Forbes contributor Eric Bachman wrote. “In this scenario, there is no legitimate business need driving the termination but an opportunity to let go of older employees who often have higher salaries. Or the employer is concerned that older employees may trigger additional costs in terms of insurance or paid time off because of their susceptibility to COVID-19. Similarly, the employer may hold stereotypical views that older employees are less likely to function well in a virtual/remote work setting that requires technological skills.”

Ageism has long been believed a driver of layoff decisions, well before the pandemic.

Although the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits discrimination against those over the age of 40, ageism nevertheless continues to be a suspected motivator behind companies’ hiring and firing decisions. In 2018, ProPublica and the Urban Institute analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study and found that 56 percent of older workers are laid off at least once or leave jobs “under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily.” 

Research done by Fairygodboss, too, has shown that workplace ageism often manifests by forcing older employees out. According to FGB’s research, for those who report having experienced ageism in the workplace, 27% said they’ve been laid off for reasons they believed were related to their age. 

Unfortunately, laid-off older workers are likely to encounter ageism once again as they attempt to reenter the workforce.

Ageism isn’t only a suspected exit factor for many older workers. After being laid off or otherwise forced to leave a company, age discrimination can also seriously hinder those individuals' ability to find work again. In FGB’s research, for those who’ve personally experienced ageism, 43% said they believe they’ve been passed over for a job for age-related reasons. Still others have had difficulty returning to the workforce at the same level of pay they’d previously reached. ProPublica and the Urban Institute’s analysis, for instance, found that only 1 in 10 of the older workers they studied was once again able to earn as much as they had before being forced out of work. In the context of this extended COVID crisis, too, when age is often directly linked to one’s vulnerability to the virus, it’s possible that additional avenues for age discrimination in hiring decisions will open up. 

Speaking to AARP, WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez voiced the question many older workers are left asking themselves at this stage in the pandemic.

"After the crisis passes and older workers are able to return to the labor market, how many jobs will there be available for them?” she asked. “It's an answer no one really has yet."

Ready to take control of your job search? Make a professional profile on FGB.

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always