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Studies aim to develop ways of spotting age discrimination

In recent years, as the economy has moved slowly toward recovery, many older workers have found it difficult to find new work or to move up in their current jobs. Indeed, it is easy to find anecdotes about workplace age discrimination, but it is much more difficult to prove definitively that it is occurring. Researchers, however, are currently working to develop a test that would prove when age bias and discrimination is occurring in the workplace.

Researchers at Princeton University asked 137 undergraduate students to examine a video of a man who was set to be their partner in a trivia contest. The man's name was Max and he was from Hamilton, New Jersey. The students did not know, however, that three different actors were playing Max. One was 25, another was 45 and another was 75 years old.

Each actor in the experiment followed the same script. There was, however, one difference: in some instances, Max said that he liked to share his wealth with members of his family. In others, he said that he did not believe he had any obligation to share money with his relatives.

When students were asked their opinion of Max, their opinions about the 25 and 45 year old versions of the character were not affected by the answer to the wealth question. Their opinions about the 75 year old version of the character, however, were highly negative when he said he did not feel obligated to share his wealth with his family.

Overall, researchers suggest that their experiment demonstrates that it is more difficult for older workers to speak up or to offer criticism in the workplace. If they do, there are likely to be consequences.

There is little disagreement that workplace age discrimination is a problem in the U.S. In one 2005 study, researchers at Texas A&M University sent out nearly 4,000 fictional resumes to employers in Massachusetts and Florida. The imaginary applicants were all women, though their ages ranged from 35 to 62. Each job researchers applied for were entry level positions. Despite the resumes of younger applicants being nearly the same as those of the older applicants, researchers discovered that younger applicants were nearly 40 percent more likely to receive an interview than those over the age of 50.

More research is needed, though experts at both Princeton and Texas A&M are optimistic that their efforts will lead to new ways of spotting and preventing workplace age discrimination.

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