Extent of discrimination against older workers

In the spring of 2004, the Centre for Population, Poverty and Socioeconomic Policy Studies conducted a survey to examine employers’ views on older workers. A total of 25 statements were submitted to business managers with the aim of assessing the qualities and shortcomings generally attributed to older workers compared with young workers. The results show that 14% of employers have quite strong discriminatory views regarding older workers.

A survey was carried out in Luxembourg in order to assess the attitude of businesses towards older workers. The Centre for Population, Poverty and Socioeconomic Policy Studies (Centre d’études de populations, de pauvreté et des politiques socio-économiques, CEPS) conducted the survey, encompassing private sector companies with 10 or more staff, as part of the research programme on ‘Keeping older workers at work’. The latter was launched by the Observatory of Professional Relations and Employment (Observatoire national des relations du travail et de l’emploi, ORPE) within the Ministry of Labour and Employment (Ministère du Travail et de l’Emploi).

Various aspects were analysed, such as recruitment and making appropriate adjustments to working conditions (LU0605029I). Moreover, company managers were asked their opinion about the weak and strong points of older workers based on a total of 25 statements representing negative stereotypes.

Favourable opinion overall

Among the 25 statements, the 12 results listed towards the end of the table below identify a very favourable judgement of older workers, which is shared by the large majority of the respondents – from 75% to 95%, depending on the statement. For another 10 statements, between 57% and 73% of the opinions are favourable with respect to older workers. Only the first three statements listed below reflect more mixed opinions.

Employers’ views on older workers (%)
Company managers were asked their opinion about 25 negative stereotypes of older workers. They had to state whether they completely or partly agree or disagree with the statements below.
Statement (negative stereotype) regarding older workers ‘Completely agree’/ ‘Partly agree’ ‘Partly disagree’/ ‘Completely disagree’
Wage costs are too high 52 48
Have difficulty adapting to new technologies 51 49
Are less resistant to stress 49 51
Cope less well with irregular working hours/work overload 43 57
Learn more slowly 41 59
Are too inflexible, set in their ways 41 59
Have lower physical resistance 40 60
Suffer more often from memory problems 32 68
Have reduced learning capacity 32 68
Lack interest in continuing training 32 68
Are less versatile 31 69
Are in greater need of training 30 70
Are less dynamic 27 73
Are not capable of the same performance as young workers 25 75
Are slow workers 25 75
Are less disposed to working in a team 23 77
Are less well organised in their daily work 20 80
Anticipate difficulties less well 18 82
Do not play an important part in the transfer of experience 16 84
Have an insufficient initial level of training 16 84
Take fewer initiatives, assume less responsibility 15 85
Commit themselves less 14 86
Are absent too often 8 92
Project a less favourable image of the company to the outside world 7 93
Lack the advantage of experience 5 95

Source: CEPS/Instead, May 2006

Summary of attitudes

Overall, 5% of the companies surveyed expressed a favourable opinion regarding all 25 statements. The survey also took account of the degree of intensity of the expressed opinions. On the basis of the scores obtained, four groups of attitude towards older workers were distinguished, corresponding to: 1) a negative representation; 2) a generally unfavourable opinion; 3) a generally positive opinion; 4) a very positive opinion.

  • The first group consists of companies recording the lowest scores, comprising 14% of the total surveyed. On average, they expressed an unfavourable opinion on about 15 statements.
  • The second group is characterised by a generally unfavourable opinion about older workers. This group represents 44% of companies. They agreed with the negative stereotype in relation to eight out of the 25 statements.
  • The third group corresponds to companies that have a generally positive opinion, accounting for 30% of the companies surveyed. Their opinion is unfavourable regarding four of the 25 formulated statements on average.
  • The last group, which comprises 12% of companies, expressed a very positive opinion about older workers. Only two of the 25 statements, on average, scored unfavourably.

Some weak points, but little discrimination

High wage costs, inability to adapt to new technologies and lack of resistance to stress emerge as the three most frequently mentioned weak points of older workers.

However, the survey finds little evidence of real discrimination against older workers. If discrimination had been more prevalent, a greater number of employers would have expressed a negative judgement for a large number of areas.

Nevertheless, the survey results should be interpreted with caution, as certain companies might have given ‘politically correct’ answers that, in certain cases, may not correspond with their real opinions.


Genevois, A.-S., ‘Stigmatisation des travailleurs âgés: mythe ou réalité’ [Stigmatisation of older workers: myth or reality?], CEPS/Instead, Population et Emploi, No.16, May 2006.

Odette Wlodarski, Prevent

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