How bad is age discrimination in academia?

I believe it is very bad, although I do not have data.  I believe that if a 46-year-old, with an excellent vita and newly minted Ph.D in hand, applied for academic economics jobs at the top fifty research universities, the individual would receive very few “bites.”  Unless of course he or she managed to cover up his or her age.  (I am very pleased with the openness of my own university, I will add in passing.)

Perhaps there are not many examples of this kind of age discrimination (do you know of any?).  In part that is because older individuals are so discouraged from going down that path in the first place.  Furthermore it is likely harder for older individuals to go down that path.  In addition to life-cycle considerations, there may be age discrimination at the stage of graduate admissions.

I rarely hear complaints about age discrimination in academia, though I often hear complaints about gender and race discrimination.  I believe all of these phenomena are real (and unfortunate), and I wonder what exactly this discrepancy indicates.  If anything, I suspect age discrimination is far more extreme, at least when it comes to the final stage of the process, namely the actual interview and hiring decisions.

Is age discrimination less of a concern because “older people as a class” face fewer, other general handicaps than do women or African-Americans?  Or is there some other reason for this difference in worry?

I believe also that older, newly minted doctoral candidates bring useful differences in perspective, as can women and ethnic minorities, due to their differing life experiences.

Here is an article about age discrimination in academia, although I find the cited evidence inconclusive.  Here is an interesting short piece from someone who is arguably the victim of age discrimination in academia.

Even for similarly-aged candidates, is there a bias in academic hiring to prefer “potential” over a solid/good but perhaps not fully inspiring track record?  I believe so.  This is related to the causes of age discrimination, which are not always about age per se.

I found very interesting the new book by Joseph Coleman, Unfinished Work: The Struggle to Build an Aging American Workforce, which deals with some related issues though not primarily in the academic context.


Compare how little you hear about age discrimination in Silicon Valley to how much you hear about gender and race discrimination in Silicon Valley.

Could it be because gender / race are more permanent, more immutable?

i.e. If you are being discriminated against because you are old, people say "Oh well, some day you were young too" or "We will all get old and face that"

Because we all get old & also we were all once granted the opportunity of being not-old it is perceived more acceptable to discriminate against the old than the black or female?

Being a Red Indian seems to be pretty bloody mutable, at Harvard at least.

Older people's skills really do decline in usefulness in Silicon Valley, too. Programming languages come and go, technology changes, etc. If you don't make an effort to stay current, your labor market value may drop substantially.

That's the dilemma of discriminative thinking. The point is that some older individuals DO make the effort to stay current. But they will nonetheless never get the opportunity to prove it because they don't get the interview or the job offer because of perceived or true beliefs about the majority of people from their group (in this case, older individuals).

Do you think the proportion of older individuals who make that effort is larger or smaller than the proportion of younger individuals? (Hint: younger individuals have no choice but to be current.)

Compare how little you hear about age discrimination in Silicon Valley to how much you hear about gender and race discrimination in Silicon Valley.

The age bias is obvious just by looking around the offices of these companies.

But the older engineers can't complain about it, because complaining implies that your career situation is less than stellar.

There's plenty of complaints about age discrimination in the tech world, and very little of gender and race discrimination. That's because there are plenty of aging engineers and very few women or blacks.

I don't know who you are listening to, but it isn't people that actually work in SV / tech.

You are kidding, right? Do you have any idea what you are talking about? Do you work at a 1st tier tech company? There are far more women in a top flight tech company than there are men over 40/45. Far more. If you push the boundary to 50 year old men there are vanishingly few.

You know nothing.

There are plenty of women around-- in HR, in graphic design, even in UX. But real engineers? There are maybe one or two per hundred, though they are going to all be highly visible because the company can't wait to trot them out whenever possible. And a black engineer, good god, I don't care if he can't complete fizzbuzz, get him out their on the conference circuit!

Yes, you won't find many engineers over 40, other than a few old guard superstars mostly kept around for their name. However you will find plenty of former engineers over 40 bitching about age discrimination and plenty of 30 something engineers terrified of being forced out of the industry. Many many more of both those categories than you will find bitter women or black engineers who are unemployed and complaining about discrimination.

I've been working at tech companies South of Market in SF for a while, and I like to think I'm fairly aware of discrimination issues. "Silicon Valley" has problems with all of the above - gender, ethnicity, and age representation and discrimination. I think part of the reason for the diverging opinions among commenters is that aging software engineers tend to be at older tech companies, and thus they're less visible to those in the startup scene (think HP or Oracle versus Facebook or Google). So different people in the industry can see very different slices of the overall demographics. Also, people love to extrapolate from their own anecdotal experience, myself included.

Gender and ethnicity have reached critical mass recently, and everyone seems to have an outreach program, as they should.

Age discrimination is still flying under the radar, comparatively. Part of the problem is separating discrimination from legitimate judgments about someone's career. For instance, when I look at an older candidate's resume, I do often avoid interviewing people who have been at the same job level for a long time. To me, that indicates either lack of ability or lack of ambition. In contrast, if I see an older candidate who's bounced around different careers and done interesting things that may not have led to linear career progression, I am much more interested in talking to them. There is a legitimate conclusion to be drawn from a candidate's career arc.

The bias towards potential over actual achievement is also a factor.

Finally, older candidates are likely to be less of a culture fit at a company full of 20-somethings. I think companies need to figure out how to deal with that issue, and I think the ones who do resolve it will have a modest competitive advantage in hiring because they'll be looking at a larger pool of talent.

I also think you might hear less about age discrimination in many startups because there are no older workers there to complain!

Everything you said about older people could be matched with analogous and statistically true predictions about minorities or women. Discrimination is either rational, or not, malicious, or not. It is a difficult position to be in - defending some discrimination while opposing other discrimination - but that's what identity politics brings you.

You are dancing since you don't have any idea what you are talking about.

At a 1st tier tech company (google, facebook, twitter, etc) you will find far more women in engineering than you will find men over 40/45. That's the numbers. I know you want, oh so badly, to root for the ideals of your tribe but reality disagrees.

You are wrong. The end. Stop talking. You know nothing. The only words I want to hear out of your mouth are : "I have no idea what I am saying. I was completely wrong. I am worthless" That's it. Nothing more.

Well you made my killfile anyway. That will have to satisfy you.

This is correct for small/young companies twitter, but totally wrong for places like Google, Amazon, and MS.

Since you mentioned Google in particular, check out any of the groups that work on core infrastructure, like Platforms. See also, the V8 crew, whose core team came from the HotSpot and StrongTalk work multiple decades ago. IIRC, everyone from the StrongTalk team ended up on the V8 team, except for Urs, who's head of Platforms. For that matter, look where the old DEC WRL people ended up. Most are at Google, and the teams they're in aren't young.

Which way do the complaints about race cut? When I was in a position to observe a decade ago, top law schools seemed to be tripping all over themselves to hire/promote non-white professors (or people claiming to be).

Nothing makes me feel more hopeless about my children escaping the boot of PC stomping down on their faces for all their lives than the fact that Tyler, an aspergy person who often responds more to logic that social norms feels the need (consciously or unconsciously) to toe the PC line on race and sex more and more each year.

Tyler of ten years ago would have had the courage to admit that women and minorities are, in general, clearly advantaged over equally qualified, equally connected white men in the pursuit of any academic job or most other desirable jobs that rely primarily on skill rather than connection. To suggest otherwise is absurd. Hell, considerably less qualified women and minorities generally have the advantage. (Yes, there are still some cases where it goes the other way, but the vast majority of race/gender motivated hires go for the female/minority.) And Tyler would have had the courage to write that ten years ago.

Over the past ten years, Tyler has received nothing but more evidence for this (and the discrimination against white men has gotten worse) and yet the world has so clearly shifted over that time that even Tyler knows the logic has to be thrown out and a lie proudly proclaimed as the truth. That is the only way he can continue to mingle with elite people rather and not feel like he is one of his mean, ugly comment writers every time he looks in the mirror.

And that's great for white men who have already done OK for themselves, but this tide is terrible for my kids and watching it take over someone as free minded as Tyler shows that there is really no hope for beating it back and establishing anything that resembles a race neutral truce. They are going to be very legally discriminated against for all their lives and whenever someone gets mad at them they will bombard them with racial epithets and, should my kids attempt to backtalk their betters rather than submit, it will end with them being ostracized.

Those of you who are fighting for your culture might as well give up. If you can't keep Tyler with an overwhelming case, you've lost.

Have you seen the research on switching resume names by gender and ethnicity? I think those show pretty clearly that there's often discrimination against equally qualified female and minority candidates.

I'll grant you that there are a lot more outreach and mentorship programs for those populations out there these days, but I hardly see an overwhelming case that they make up for discrimination, let alone give people an advantage.

I'm not clear on why you have such a strong opinion on this topic but don't provide any actual evidence. To be frank, it comes across as mainly fueled by anxiety.

If a white man had an outrageous name he wouldn't get called back either. Forget allusions to research on second-order effects (like names), why not just look at the numbers? What does a white male have to score on the LSAT to 'target' Yale or Harvard, and how much less intelligent can a woman, minority, or god-help-us, a female minority for the same target? Do the children of Barack Obama really have less privilege than the average white male child? No. So why do our AA policies and those who support them pretend that they do? Do they prefer inefficient and inaccurate social justice mechanisms, or is social justice just a Machiavellian farce?

"If a white man had an outrageous name he wouldn’t get called back either."

Wow, talk about not understandin cause & effect,

Remember the good old days when orchestras only hired men?

His point was that if all the white candidates were named "Cleetus," they would not have been called back either.

The test only proved that people discriminate against candidates who overtly come from dysfunctional families that are stupid enough to saddle their kids with names that hurt their employment prospects (presumably because such people are genetically related to their parents and, thus, less likely to be as smart as apparently equally candidates with no red flags and, moreover, far less likely to be skilled in the sort of social graces you rarely learn from people who name you "Cleetus.")

To add to Thomas' point about the amazingly overt discrimination in favor of preferred-race candidates at every school — which of course creates the ability to discriminate against whites (and Asians) going forward because they went to State U rather than Harvard — let's add even more overt proclamation by nearly every quality employer in favor of affirmative action or, at the very least, the active recruitment of women and minorities.

And I would say that if researchers need to set up crafty studies to look for traces of bad discrimination in favor of white men while all the world proclaims its good discrimination against white men is a pretty strong indication of what is the dominant (though not exclusive) mode of discrimination right now.

But frankly this is all off topic. If the proclamation of every employer about its intention to discriminate against white men is not proof enough for you, then good luck in life.

The topic of the comment was that, if Tyler, who is clearly smart enough to understand which group suffers the most from discrimination right now, chooses to lie about who is disadvantaged and who is privileged in academic hiring right (perhaps even to himself but more likely to the outside world as a signal of his goodness) then the fight against such racial discrimination has far less hope than I once imagined.

Perhaps there's a chance for me to profit from those who dispute the underlying assertion of what's the dominate mode of discrimination in academic life.

I'd be pretty willing to stake real money on a bet that a comparison of people who get tenure at top 20 schools would show that in real departments (i.e. nothing fuzzier than econ) successful white (and Asian) male candidates have, on average, more papers with more citations than black or Hispanic candidates of both genders and women of all races.

I'm not sure how you could set it up to compare apples-to-apples with any statistical power. A person getting tenure for econ at Harvard is not comparable to a person getting tenure in physics at Michigan. But I'll certainly consider a bet with anyone who comes up with a proxy that seems reasonable to both of us beforehand.

I thought not.

I didn't expect anyone from Tyler on down to pay that particular tax on their bullshit.

Don't worry, your kids can still be superstars in the HBD blogoverse!

The Tyler of 10 years ago had 10 years less experience. Does that lived experience not count for something?

Yes. And that's rather my point. The evidence is clearer than ever, but the powers that be have made it clearer still that they will no longer play nice with dissenters and, voila, dissenters disappear, even those who are pretty fact driven and not all that attuned to social pressure.

Of course, Tyler has no children who will suffer the consequences and I suspect he has that in common with many of you who think overt discrimination against white men is no big deal.

Ah well, I suppose I shouldn't try to argue when my original point is that there's no use arguing.

Probably it does count for something, like increased risk aversion and ten more years to observe the ostracism of academics who dare speak truly (Watson, Murray, et al).

It's very interesting why some identity politics categories are such a big deal and others don't generate any solidarity at all.

For example, discrimination against lefthanders used to be rampant, and still exists in certain jobs (e.g., baseball can't come up with a coherent explanation of why there have been no left-handed catchers for decades), but nobody cares. You never see PBS specials recounting the honored heroes of Lefthander Liberation.

No systemic discrimination against them for ages. If there were zero systemic discrimination against black people or women these days, they would not care either.

It was common in the early 20th Century to punish lefthanded children until they took up writing righthanded. After a while, though, it stopped and lefthanders became more tolerated. I think this would make a good PBS documentary about how heroic activists overcame society's bigotry against an oppressed minority, but nobody seems interested, in large part because there is no organized constituency of lefthanders demanding that, say, March be Lefthander History Month.

There remain examples of disparate impact discrimination -- such as against lefthanded catchers in baseball -- just as there remain examples of disparate impact discrimination against more celebrated groups.

So, it's pretty interesting to try to think about why lefthanders aren't a salient identity politics group while others are.

Did you ever play baseball? A lefty catcher faces a comparative disadvantage because, to start off on a catching career, at age 9 or so the parents would have to go buy an expensive catcher's mitt and their kid couldn't share with other players. Most lefties would be pushed to try pitching because of the comparative advantage. When I played, I did know a lefty who caught, but by the time we played in high school he'd focused on pitching.

But if a natural catcher isn't quite cut out for pitcher, then a lefty is out of playing baseball because most catchers are too slow for other positions than first base and probably don't hit quite well enough to play first. A lot of catchers become coaches, so a chance for a post-playing career is probably gone too. It's unfair but nobody cares:

The explanation I have heard is that, since most batters are right-handed, there would be a disadvantage in throwing out base-stealers (they would have to throw over the batter). I would bet somebody has done research on the effect of batter-handedness on base-stealing. Also, lefties should have an advantage getting the batter on a bunt, but a disadvantage going after the lead runner at third on a bad bunt. Seems trivial compared to finding a decent bat at that position.

Lefty catchers are disadvantaged in throwing to third base since they have to turn almost 180 degrees, similar to the reason why leftys are disadvantaged in playing 3B and SS. Stealing third may not be that common in the big leagues, and teams would like to keep it that way. Also, stealing third is more common at junior high and high school ages and would be even more so with lefty catchers.

But lefty catchers would be advantaged at throwing to first on pick-offs, bunts, and dribblers.

And lefty batters have an advantage at hitting.

But the overarching point is that no group protests bigotry against lefthanded catchers since lefthanders don't form politically powerful identity groups, for reasons that aren't immediately clear but are probably revealing about.

"I would bet somebody has done research on the effect of batter-handedness on base-stealing."

I haven't found any and I spent a couple of days looking for reasons why there is so much prejudice against lefty catchers. After all, about 30% of batters are lefthanded, so righthanded catchers would have big trouble when lefty batters are up at pick off throws to first and minor trouble at throwing to second.

Consider this case: your opponent today has an outstanding base stealer as leadoff man, followed by left-handed #2 and #3 hitters. That would seem like a good day to rest your right-handed starting catcher and start your left-handed catcher who specializes in keeping good baserunners close to first with pickoff throws.

Except ... you don't have left-handed backup catcher because nobody has a left-handed catcher.

Catchers are behind the plate. When they throw to first, they are located to the right of the first base line. A left-handed catcher is more likely to hit the runner than a right-handed catcher.

I get that you're trying to make a larger point about race politics, but your argument here is terrible. Why you dismiss throwing mechanics and likelihood of target is a mystery. Baseball is predicated on clockwise ball movement, with the common exception of throws from first base. For a catcher, pick-off throws to first do not come close to the importance of catching steals at third. Your article's citation of bunts and dribblers is a strange red herring, and incorrect in many instances.

Also, your case ignores the massive benefits the game gives lefties elsewhere. Left-handing pitching and hitting enjoy a premium; this probably shouldn't require explanation.

"Also, your case ignores the massive benefits the game gives lefties elsewhere. Left-handing pitching and hitting enjoy a premium;"

Which is why we should see some lefthanded catchers -- they would tend to be better hitters.

Here's an analogy: we are constantly lectured about how society in the past massively discriminated against black quarterbacks and still does, as demonstrated by black quarterbacks in the NFL being only about as common as they are in the American population as a whole. So the conventional wisdom's argument is that blacks aren't underrepresented at quarterback in the NFL, it's that bigotry is the reason that they're not overrepresented the way they are at most other positions.

Left handed hitters are overrepresented in MLB because lefties have certain natural advantages at baseball. So, you'd expect them to be over-represented at catcher, but instead they are represented at all.

Yet, the black NFL quarterback question is constantly fussed over in the press. When Rush Limbaugh dissented from the reigning dogma about discrimination in 2003, he got fired from his TV football commentator job and was later blocked from becoming a part owner of an NFL team.

In contrast, the left-handed catcher issue is a non-issue. It comes up now and then in isolated articles in the press, but almost everybody accepts that there must be some good reason that the powers that be discriminate against left-handed catchers, but nobody seems to be able to agree what those reasons are.

That's silly. You don't need a catcher's mitt to catch little league pitching. 8-12 year olds are not throwing so hard that the hand needs extra padding or with so much break that you need disproportionate padding at the edges to protect your hand when you misjudge it.

"at age 9 or so the parents would have to go buy an expensive catcher’s mitt"

The amount of money these days that parents lavish on their baseball-playing sons is far more than the cost of a catcher's mitt. Most American young big-leaguers came up through "travel squads" in which their parents spent thousands per year on transportation and motel rooms for their sons.

That's incorrect. They do that all the time. Oh, did you say "Lefthander"? I thought you said "Leftwinger".

"It’s very interesting why some identity politics categories are such a big deal and others don’t generate any solidarity at all."

You got that right. Those who believe they have been discriminated against because of their age need to organize themselves and start making a fuss about their victimhood before it's too late... and they're dead.

I still cross the street when I see a lefty walking in my direction. I used to hold doors open for them too but they started getting offended.

A much bigger deal is that if you're left handed you can't get trained as an electrician. I know a pair of twin pastors sons of whom one is apprenticed to an electrician. The other is left handed and the electrician won't take him because it's too dangerous. Everything is set up for righthandedwork.

"I believe also that older, newly minted doctoral candidates bring useful differences in perspective, as can women and ethnic minorities, due to their differing life experiences."

Among literary writers, as Kundera pointed out in "The Lyric Age," there's a fairly standard career progression from lyric poetry to the social novel. The writer feels more intensely when he's young, but knows more about how the world works when he's old.

With non-artistic intellectuals, the similar progression is often from theory to empiricism. The older you get, the more opportunity you have to notice patterns in humanity.

Of course, much of modern academia is crippled by the fear that somebody somewhere will notice a pattern, so maybe that helps explain age bias?

That's close to my guess: a 46-year old would be at a disadvantage in academic Economics because he'd know too much about the world. Better to stick to mathematical models and regression studies.

Fine observations from you both!

Perhaps something similar is true about programmers in the software start up world. Any programmer who's been around the the start up block a few times knows they're pretty much all going to fail. The older programmer brings a different, unwanted perspective to the endeavor, probably too much fucking perspective.

Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if this is the reason -- older people will make the younger elites--whether start up business owners, or various academic elites choosing students or professors to hire--feel stupid, or in some other way not fall in line. I am starting to feel this as a possible reaction, only so far in academia, not yet in the private sector (in my late 30s).

That's a good point and similar to one I've noticed as well. When you're young, especially if you're a smart, curious kid, you learn a little bit about a bunch of different things, and you tend to explain things in the form of grand overarching theories rather than nitty gritty empirics. Not surprisingly young people are the most likely to hold to single-minded uncompromising political views like communism, extreme libertarianism, Ayn Rand enthusiasm, and so on.

But as you get older and learn more and experience the world more, you let the grand theories wash away in favor of just learning a lot more about the world. Sadly (because it requires a lot more work) there really is no shortcut to just reading a crapload of different things and getting out and experiencing the world.

I myself am only in my mid-20s, not exactly an old fart, and I definitely notice this shift taking place in my mind with each passing year.

This didn't really come out the way I wanted it to but I think you get the idea.

i was once told you have a window of 2 years after your PhD to land a job (post-doc or TT) because hiring committees like that "new PhD smell".

Academia is truly a horrible place full of horrible people. I do not once miss it.

I do not think it is "the new PhD smell." I think it is the signal it sends if you are unable to get an academic job in 2 years.

But isn't that attitude self perpetuating, and doesn't it leave out lots of people whose potential contributions aren't apparent when they're 25? I left academia for medicine when I saw how warped the local politics were, and it was really only after 6-8 years of clinical work that I realized how unready I had been to make meaningful postdoctoral contributions. I'd been advised to "fake it till you make it," and that might have worked, but I only realized how naive I was once I released myself from the pressures of fighting the tenure-track climb and did some actual work for a while. At the point where I was actually ready to do worthwhile research, I knew I'd been out of the game long enough that I had no chance. And, at that point, as Michael said, I realized I didn't miss it.

Aren't the young discriminated against too?

e.g. "He looks too immature for that job" or "If he's so young our customers won't trust his judgement" etc.

That's far less of a problem, specially in academia... At least in EU/US, people just "take their time" to become an adult...Of course if you want to be CEO of a company at age 22, maybe you will be age-discriminated but that's kind of logical.

Is there any data on the ultimate value differences by age?

Are 46 olds of more, less or equal value to the university?

I know it's politically incorrect to ask this. But the value for a job is a relevant question.

One of Bill James' early big discoveries in baseball statistics was that the peak age for ballplayers (27) was younger than most people would have guessed.

I think Jazi made a good point, Tyler. You think age discrimination is very bad, but you didn’t say why. By the time the 46 year old gets tenure, he/she will be in his/her early 50s. Do you think that that person’s energy and productivity are close to those of the 30-somethings who otherwise would have been hired?

In Silicon Valley, it would be natural to build an alliance between American women and older American men because they are the prime victims of the billionaires' push for more H-1B visas.

I disagree.

Now, I was not at a top school ... but when I was at a lower level Ph.D. program I would absolutely take a flyer on someone of that age if they had a decent CV. It's discrimination in the opposite direction though: I'd have some confidence that perhaps they'd gotten past the new family years, and had some/more of their childcare plans under control. There's a huge uncertainty in hiring someone younger in that they may later have a child with some sort of issue that leads to lost productivity of the parent.

You may be more careful in calculating risk in human resources than most, however.

It has been my (limited) experience in academia that the people one works with love accommodating drama or mess, family or otherwise.

See below, the 'kindness' post, for a perfect example!

Not sure if this is anecdote, but I once had a colleague discriminate against an older assistant professor job candidate out of kindness: she wondered what he would do with his life if when he was in his early 50s, he did not get tenure.

I started a PhD track in economics when I was 49 (didn't finish, long story). I was surprised by how open admissions of discrimination were. The professor who was nominally my advisor told me straight up: "You can write the most brilliant dissertation in a decade, but no top-100 school will give you more than a courtesy interview. Yeah, it's illegal; it's also true." In my experience outside the academic world, no one would make a statement like that. They might believe it, and they might practice it if they were involved in hiring, but they wouldn't say it out loud.

"is there a bias in academic hiring to prefer 'potential' over a solid/good but perhaps not fully inspiring track record?"

Treating people differently based on different track records in the field may be a "bias" in some sense, but surely it is completely justifiable? Now we are in the realm of discussing what is the optimal hiring policy, rather than whether a hiring policy is just.

And this is the problem with "age discrimination" as a concept. It is nearly impossible to separate from differences in experience and qualification. One is almost never faced with two candidates who are identical in every way, except one is ten years older. The older candidate had ten more years to amass relevant experience--or not. With older candidates applying for a lower-level job, there are often reasons they did not advance to a higher level position.

I'm sure there are some cases of "pure" age discrimination, and this is unfair. But often it is not so clear.


Like job change or economic conditions? I want to go back to get my PhD, but I do worry about just this. At least there are non-academy options for econ doctors that there are not for the humanities.

I wonder if the idea about potential could be linked to age discrimination towards women who are perceived as likely to leave as as they get pregnant

Some identies lead to less strife, for example ginger hair, shortsightedness or shortness. Maybe because age comes to us all is the justification here?

'I believe it is very bad, although I do not have data.'

Self-recommending mood affiliation.

Age discrimination is pervasive throughout the labor market so it would be surprising if it weren't present in academia.

Spot on. Once you are in your late 40's, DON"T CHANGE JOBS. If you do and you choose the wrong one it's very hard to get your career going again. Almost no one will employ except in dead end entry level positions. Happened to me and I I've met many others in a similar position. Look at the older people you see around who are doing menial and semi skilled jobs and talk to them. You will be surprised where they came from.

@Tyler, the numbers : average full professor age = 55 years old, average Ph D finishing age = 37 years old.

Administrators and old professors want Yes people. They prefer to contract post-docs under 30 compared to a more experienced 46 years old that can compete and take the position.

That age number (37) is not relevant for econ. Most econ Ph.D.s finish in 4-6 years, unlike many other fields where a decade is common. Also, Econ Ph.D.s are much less likely to do a post-doc than other fields.

The same document says that the average age of tenure receipt is 39, implying that the average age of hire is 33 or so. So, across all Ph.D.s the average graduation age is 37 but for successful tenure-track candidates it is 33. The sounds like evidence of age discrimination.

Compare the average weight of an NFL player to the average weight of all would-be NFL players. Sounds like evidence of mass discrimination to me.

It is hard to work out. Perhaps aging is in principle universal and in fact is a sign of actuarial good fortune, so people don't mind the idea of discrimination. The old were young once, so they already enjoyed whatever systemic advantage is now directed against them. Perhaps people believe the middle-aged have better outside options and would rather reward the young person who has shown early commitment/need for a job. Perhaps the young settle for less and are more likely to have time and energy to devote to work burdens that would seem preposterous to a confident 45-year old. Perhaps there are more advantages to be accrued by the employer from those with longer expected future careers.

"According to research by Vivek Wadhwa, an academic and tech entrepreneur, and the Kauffman Foundation, the average age of successful start-up founders in these and other high-growth industries was 40. And high-growth start-ups are almost twice as likely to be launched by people over 55 as by people 20 to 34."

Most are married too.

Funny how cultural memes so often depart from reality.

Maybe it is rational. Do you have any examples of people who got their Ph.D.'s at 46, were nearly overlooked, and then became stars?

I know of cases where someone got a senior offer around age 55 or 60 because their age made it much less risky than tenuring a 35-year-old who could become deadwood for decades.

I think that's not the point. The way I read this is that there is much noise about discrimination against certain groups in academia, but not that much noise about age discrimination, and the question is why? Whether the charges of discrimination are borne out by data is irrelevant: the data may perhaps point to absence of discrimination agains certain groups where it is assumed to be widespread (can we even publicly mention the fact that men have higher stadard deviation of IQ, and so are more concentrated at the extremes?), which makes the puzzle even stranger . I don't think that the 'old were once young' explanation holds water, as we are talking about applicants for Assistant professor positions - these people were not Assistant professors twenty years ago. One may say 'tough luck, they should have been', but that's exactly the issue: why is it appropriate for someone to apply for a certain position as a 30-yr old, and not as a 50-yr old?

It is hard to "prove" that 46-year-old rookies deserve jobs unless you are an expert in the field. My question about 46-year-old stars remains open. By contrast, underrepresented black athletes and especially black NFL coaches have performed well, suggesting a lot of rejected black candidates would also do well.

Your comment about standard deviation is relevant, because schools pay for option value. A 30-year-old might win a Nobel, but a 46-year-old has a more predictable career path.

The reason is probably tenure, you can't get rid of a non performing 75 year old without engaging in age discrimination.

Tenure only makes sense in a world with retirement ages. When the latter were scrapped, so should the former have been. The other powerful argument against tenure is that it no longer does its original job of protecting people with heterodox opinions, since universities no longer hire or tenure such people anyway.

I agree. It seems likely to me that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act has made things worse, not better, for old people who want to work. It's almost impossible to enforce the act as applied to hiring decisions, but it can be hard to fire older workers. As a result, employers are understandably reluctant to take a chance on older applicants. Tenure makes it even worse in academia than elsewhere. Furthermore, there are a lot of jobs, and teaching may be one of them, in which it may make sense to favor younger candidates.

I find this is true about legislation against discrimination in employment in general. Its much more enforceable in terms of firing than for hiring, so employers get around the law by not hiring from the protected group in the first place.

This should be testable. If my suspicions are correct, every time some sort of legislation against discrimination in employment is passed, labor force participation in the protected group should decrease, and maybe fewer people in that group who do get jobs should leave them.

National accounting firms have a low mandatory retirement age for partners, around age 60 - 62, suggesting that age doesn't add value - or even subtracts value. In my profession (law), age is associated with experience and experience is believed to impart wisdom and good judgment, and a lawyer's judgment is what provides significant value for a client; hence, it's common for law firms to have more than a few octogenarians working full time. There are a couple of possible explanations for the difference between accounting and law: (1) as compared to law, experience at a national accounting firm doesn't add much value for a client, or (2) the pyramid at a national accounting firm isn't growing so older partners must leave to make way for younger partners in the pyramid. [I work with physicians, including many surgeons, whose skills (as a surgeon) deteriorate with age, much like an athlete, unlike accounting and law, where physical skills have little or no meaning.] Are academics more like accountants or lawyers? Does experience add value? It's conventional wisdom that for most people learning ends with high school. For academics, it's conventional wisdom that learning ends with graduate school, meaning that the academic establishes her views in graduate school and her research thereafter is intended to confirm those views. This seems particularly true with the social sciences. Indeed, it seems that much of the research in the social sciences is more about branding than learning. As an example, Cowen recently linked to an academic study in which the authors' research confirmed that ending unemployment benefits on December 31, 2013, increased employment by a significant margin thereafter. I pointed out in a comment that the authors didn't include job openings (as reported by BLS) during the relevant period, an odd omission given the subject researched. Last Wednesday, Greg Mankiw posted a graph on his blog showing the significant increase in job openings (as reported by BLS), from which Mankiw concluded that secular stagnation is over. Great minds think alike, I suppose. Cowen asks if there's age discrimination in academia in hiring a newly-minted Ph.D. If the motive in hiring in academia is to enhance the value of the brand, then why hire a nearly old, newly-minted Ph.D.?

In academic, "it’s conventional wisdom that learning ends with graduate school".

Odd, isn't it? Certainly if you work in industry in an area that's fast moving, your graduate work will provide a foundation for what you do when you are, say 45, but you will likely be doing something completely different. Keep learning or die.

Right. Zbicyclist and I worked at a firm together. I probably learned as much on the job per year as I did as an undergrad or MBA student.

Even for similarly-aged candidates, is there a bias in academic hiring to prefer “potential” over a solid/good but perhaps not fully inspiring track record? I believe so. This is related to the causes of age discrimination, which are not always about age per se.

In hiring by technology companies this dynamic is definitely evident.

I have been on econ hiring committees recently. I think we would certainly not discard a freshly minted PHD because he/she was 46. Now in about 20 years of doing this, I have not seen any junior candidates that were in their 40s. Most of them as you know are in their late 20s-early 30s. However, in admissions to our PhD degree, that may be a different story. I do recall members of our admissions committee having doubts that an applicant that had been, let's say, 10 or more years away from school could succeed in the program. If you read the latest brain research (see WSJ story within last week), when areas of the brain are not used, they are adapted by the brain to other tasks. We already knew this by intuition as someone in their 40s that has been away from school for a while has tremendous difficulty with the rigor and math of the PhD econ core.

I have no data and am probably colored by personal experience - but I believe it generalizes well (go ahead, accuse me of mood affiliation):
By the time you are 50, academia expects you to have a stellar record to seriously consider you. If your record is "ok" but does not stand out, there are several things working against you - all symptoms of a dysfunctional academic labor market, in my opinion. Hiring practices still pretend that a new hire will stay for the rest of their career (of course, tenure helps with that belief). A young academic might still turn out to win a Nobel Prize - the older academic has either been in the running or never will be. And, the third hurdle is the worst - the value of age is that you have considerable teaching experience and academics are so skeptical of the whole "teaching" enterprise that this is discounted. It may even be counted negatively. It was much easier for me to get excellent teaching evaluations when I was young - I didn't know much and the students viewed me as almost one of them. As I've aged, the gap between students and what I think I should be doing has grown and it is harder for those 18-22 year olds to like my teaching style. Academics sort of "know this" from their own experience and prefer to hire the young academic as a teacher than the older one.

There are other reasons - ability to control a hire and make sure they stay in line. New PhDs on a tenure track are much easier to control than a 55 year old experience academic. Probably more reasons as well, though none of them reflect well on academia. They may be rational - but the system is dysfunctional.

By "much easier to control" one must also mean: compel to teach the courses that others prefer not to teach, including early morning large first-year lecture courses.

Yes, and as Rayward says above: enhancing the brand. ("This person makes our dept. look strong in this area, etc.")

I wonder if it works the other way at D2 or "regional" schools. A professor that has a 10-20 year track record of doing their job is often a blessing.

In the physical sciences at least, people tend to do their best work before the age of 40. If the goal in hiring is to create a strong research department, it would seem that age should reasonably be a factor in these fields.

I am not sure I believe this. First, tenure has a major impact on productivity, so that may account for much of your observation. Second, and more importantly, how are you defining "best?" I think you mean "most" not necessarily "best." Sure I did more technical work when I was younger and it got published in "better" journals. But it was certainly not my "best" work in terms of whether I had anything worthwhile to say.

I guess this is less true than it used to be. These guys find the average age of doing Nobel Prize work in physics, chemistry, and medicine is around 48 in recent years:

That said, typically to make your Nobel breakthrough at 48, you needed to have put in decades of hard slogging. If you start the race at 46, the odds are not stacked in your favor.

In the linked articles, there is no mention of PhD-granting institution quality. That is the elephant in the room.

My guess is that older PhDs get their PhDs from less elite universities, and all universities try to hire from the elite programs first (not just in econ but apparently in soc too). The end result is the same, but it is not willful age discrimination. It is the outcome of a two-step process. Yes, it is still discrimination, but second-degree, not first.

Elite schools are less likely to admit older students.

"Even for similarly-aged candidates, is there a bias in academic hiring to prefer “potential” over a solid/good but perhaps not fully inspiring track record? I believe so."

You have just discovered how options work. Departments are buying options with 6-year long contracts and then either exercise them (give tenure) or not. Why hire anybody who is "solid" but has a minimal chance of getting tenure anyway?

It's not clear at all that this is all that bad from the perspective of the applicants, either. If departments are better at screening long-run potential than the applicants are, then not hiring them equals telling them "look guys, maybe a different career track is more suitable for you right at this point."

By the way, the same applies for selection in early years of graduate programs. Some departments are routinely criticized for setting the bar for first- and second-year qualifier exams too high and for kicking out students who do not pass. Well, my classmates from my PhD years who got kicked out are now extremely successful in the private sector. If they had stayed, they would have probably suffered through several years of writing a dissertation, and then not end up with a better job prospect anyway.

I can't speak for the top 50 programs, but in the vast middle, some, especially b-schools, like to hire older applicants because they have experience outside of academics. My experience is, unfortunately, those applicants are looking for a part-time job that pays better than being a greeter at a certain discount store. Even though they have gone back to earn a Ph.D., productivity is low. They just tell war stories to the students and faculty, even though those stories quickly become dated. Research? Forget about it! I know of one such older hire who voices the opinion that all scholarship is a waste of time.

As one of these potential "professors of practice", I am reasonably sure that about 95% of scholarship is a waste of time. I would argue that the war stories retain great value given the cyclicality of the human endeavor, in so many areas. More students need to know more about what it's like in the real world, and less about new research papers in second-rate journals whose authors assume away all annoying realities.

When I was doing my dissertation, I figured I had an awesome idea for a piece of software, because there was *nothing* in the literature describing anything like it. It wasn't until I got out and into the private sector that I found out that there were several such pieces of software, vastly more sophisticated than anything I imagined, in everyday use by hundreds of firms. And this was after doing my degree in an applied field at a school that made a big deal about their "active industry connections". Such is the magnitude of the disconnects between the upper levels of academic world and the real world.

Does age discrimination in academia manifest itself in a *significant* way in anything other than *entry*-level hiring? As long as we're talking about 40- and 50-year olds (rather than octogenarians), does it play any role at all in the lateral hiring market? In compensation and honors at ones home institution? I doubt productive academics who have taken the normal career path *begin* to face discrimination after turning 40 or 50 or even 60 (as, according to some, engineers in Silicon Valley do). Gender and race, on the other hand, are plausibly persistent bases of discrimination throughout the careers of productive academics.

"Gender and race, on the other hand, are plausibly persistent bases of discrimination throughout the careers of productive academics."

The opposite is true. A woman or Black person with 10-20 years of solid experience in academia? The sky is the limit. Schools (and industry) love to have such folk in their literature, and if they are actually productive too that is gravy.

Somebody may have already said the same upthread, but can't (rational or efficient) age discrimination in academia be explained with a simple real options model?

Junior (i.e., untenured) faculty are standard real options. You test them for 6-8 years, depending on the length of the tenure clock, and then you exercise your call option and give them tenure, if you desire to do so. And option values increase in volatility, which is higher for a 29-year old with a short CV compared to a 46-year old with a long one.

Admittedly, this argument has a lot more bite for top schools, which are likely to retain the (ex-post) starts they hire. Lower ranked schools are likely to see their stars move on to higher-ranked places. But then moving costs are pretty high, so some of them do stay.

Does it even make sense for 40-somethings to pursue advanced degrees? The normal logic is that society is investing 5-7 years of training to reap the added benefits of 40-50 years of additional productivity due to human capital. But we know that a 40-something PhD (MD, JD, ...) can only leverage that additional capital for 30-40 years.

This is especially true in areas like MD school where we have severely limited slots and greater demand than supply. Why waste a precious med-school slot on an individual that can give you 30 doctor-years when you can get 45 doctor-years out of a 22yo?

[ I know this is rather unpleasant. But it seems like straightforward, albeit cold, logic. I also allow that some candidates might be so much exceptionally better than their peers as to make their total expected return competitive even over fewer years of service. But this just moves the relative bar. ]

Yes, but that is the point of view of the med school. (It's arguably a corrupt logic based on an artificial monopoly and view of oneself as societal czar, but it is a logic.) We are talking about a person who already has the advanced degree, and is applying for a junior faculty position. Junior faculty are unlikely to stay with the hiring university for a long time; most will look for a tenure track job elsewhere. Since older people are more likely to have established roots in the region, the view of the hiring university would logically be that, if anything, they are more likely to get an older junior hire for longer. Presumably they simply believe that an equally qualified older candidate is just relatively undeserving, or uncool, or unlikely to produce good research, or unlikely to connect with the students.

I don't see why the same isn't true for humanities or econ or physics. We invest 5-7 years in additional training, we expect 40+ phd-years of labor in return, whatever the field.

Nor does it matter whether the training is embedded in an artificial monopoly (or a real one or none at all) -- if one is going to invest in human capital, it makes sense to do so for individuals for whom the expected return is greatest.

Ethnic discrimination is an extreme taboo, age discrimination is not. There are valid reasons to discriminate based on both age and ethnicity but the latter is controversial and taboo: a bank can probably use loan applicant ethnicity to infer more accurate loan repayment probability, for example.

A few reasons why age discrimination is less on a concern:

A) older people are not overwhelmingly Democratic voters. They are of another tribe. Thus, little support.

B) older people are often in charge. While this is a vanishingly small part of the population it is the face that people see.

C) since activists will, sooner or later, be part of this demographic, supporting older aged people does not play into their self loathing.

Am I missing something, or couldn't this largely be a simple output calculation? A 30 year old will, assuming all else being equal, produce 15 more years of scholarly work after being hired. If you think that colleges have long horizons and hire for decades rather than years, you need a pretty significantly superior resume to make up for that.

Gary Charness pulled it off. He earned his Ph.D. in 1996, not sure how old he was then but I'm guessing a solid 40. He did struggle to get his first tenure-track job, but he eventually ended up at UCSB and clearly has a CV that could get you tenured anywhere.

Mark Zuckerberg:"Young people are just smarter,"

I notice that a lot of my old friends from the market research business are now getting PHDs in their 50s. My friends tended to be the more intellectual types, so this is a self-selected group.

Their goals are mostly to teach at MBA schools or the like where students and administrators value Old War Stories from the trenches of corporate life. When I got my MBA at UCLA in 1980-82, the single best professor was a 60 or perhaps even 70-something millionaire who had made a fortune running his own manufacturing company, then sold it and taught modern finance theory at UCLA with superb rigor. He was the best possible advertisement (especially if visited him at his new mansion in Pacific Palisades) that this logically complicated stuff wasn't just rigamarole made up by academics, but was directly applicable to being a Chief Financial Officer.

So, is there any data on what kind of academic institutions and fields are more amenable to hiring middle-aged starter-overs? Perhaps late-blooming economists would find that business schools are more welcoming?

I'm not sure how much it applies to academia, but in the business world old people are avoided generally because...

1. They will consume more health care benefits than other workers; thus raising the health care costs of the company.
2. They generally don't work well with younger managers.
3. Generally have more commitments and can't work long hours or participate in unecessary company functions.

Wow, this topic is like catnip to the white sheet types. Who'd have thunk it?

"People who disagree with me are evil"

I'll sit this round out and be back when the anti-ageing pills come out in 2019.

Then the fun *really* begins.

A commenter on a post at Edward Tufte's form ( quotes the abstract of a paper by Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute, "Mindless Statistics" (

Statistical rituals largely eliminate statistical thinking in the social sciences. Rituals are indispensable for identification with social groups, but they should be the subject rather than the procedure of science. What I call the "null ritual" consists of three steps: (1) set up a statistical null hypothesis, but do not specify your own hypothesis nor any alternative hypothesis, (2) use the 5% significance level for rejecting the null and accepting your hypothesis, and (3) always perform this procedure. I report evidence of the resulting collective confusion and fears about sanctions on the part of students and teachers, researchers and editors, as well as textbook writers.)

GG talked to the author of a textbook on statistics for students of psychology. In early editions, there was a chapter on Bayesian statistics, and one line mentioning the development from Fisher to Neyman to Pearson. In later editions, these were removed. The author did not deny that he had created the illusion that there was only one statistical tool. He attributed the changes to three causes (I am quoting more or less loosely): his fellow researchers, the university, administration, and his publisher. Most researchers were not interested in statistical thinking, but in getting their papers published. The university administration promoted according to number of publications, reinforcing this POV. The publisher wanted a single-recipe cookbook.

It seems to me that there are all kinds of life-paths that might give you more skin in the game. It's not simply a question of whether you, as a woman, a person of color, an immigrant, a 40- or 50- or 60-something, could somehow signal appropriately for an academic job. You might see gaps between the accredited versions and what you had seen that needed to be fixed. (Needed to be fixed precisely because accredited publications confer legitimacy, which has consequences.) Not to be too much the tired cynic, I would never have seen this as a selling point.

40 sounds like an absurd cut-off point.

Even at standard retirement age, that's 25 years of career left. Nobody sticks around for 25 years. By that time, the managers doing the hiring will be retired themselves.

Comments for this post are closed