An aging population, coupled with low employment rates among Americans older than 62, poses severe challenges to the long-term sustainability of Social Security. Numerous reforms have been proposed to extend their working lives, including raising the retirement age. Such reforms may be unlikely to gain traction — not because people are so eager to retire, but because age discrimination sharply limits job opportunities.

After decades of debate, most labor economists today accept that discrimination has played a role in limiting job market opportunities for minorities and women. There's been a steady buildup of evidence that is hard to refute. Most notably, in numerous field experiments, fictitious job seekers designed to be identical in every respect other than race or ethnicity apply for jobs either in person or online. Almost invariably the results show employers offering fewer jobs and interviews to minorities.

What about older workers? Do employers likewise pass them over when they are equally qualified? The answer is critical to Social Security or any other reforms to public pensions that rely on keeping older workers on the job.

To find out the answer, two colleagues and I modified the basic design of those earlier employment experiments to examine age discrimination. We created realistic but fictitious resumes for young (30s), middle-aged (50s) and older (around 65) job applicants. We specifically crafted variations on resumes that older workers present, including one that showed the common path of moving to a lower-skill job later in life (think, somewhat stereotypically, of store greeters at Wal-Mart).

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