Older people face discrimination in the workplace because of their age at similar rates to those who are disadvantaged because of their race or sex, an economist argues.

David Neumark, a United States-based economist who is visiting New Zealand and giving a workshop at the University of Auckland Business School, said field work showed that over-60s were much less likely to receive call-backs for job applications than younger people. Older women were affected more than men.

Neumark said there was no clear reason for why women were disproportionately affected but argued attractiveness could play a part.

"In general, research indicates that physical attractiveness boosts hiring. Moreover, related research suggests that there is an 'attractiveness penalty' for age, which is more severe for women than for men," he said.

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An example of this "cultural penalty" for being older is reflected in media portrayal of older men and women. It is normal, for instance, for men to marry younger women but if women marry younger men, it's seen as a controversy, he said.

"You look at Macron in France and the amount of press his marriage to an older woman got, almost nobody mentioned that Donald Trump is with a much younger woman," he said.

He compared the situation to a study on the career lifespan of women in film. A 90-year examination of career length found a strong preference for older men, whereas women's careers ended much earlier.

Older women tend to outlive their husbands and can end up poor without employment options. Neumark said being able to work longer would ease that stress, but many don't get that option.

The situation is similar in New Zealand.

Diversity Works (formerly the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust) chief executive Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie said many New Zealand businesses are not actively recruiting workers older than 50.

"It's short-sighted given they offer skills, expertise, knowledge and experience built up over a lifetime of working," Cassidy-Mackenzie said.

Research commissioned by the trust showed that over 60 per cent of organisations were encouraging workers to continue working beyond retirement age but less than 20 per cent reported using or planning to use job recruitment practices targeting older workers.

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"One of the most commonly held beliefs has been around the perceived lack of computer literacy amongst the older generation. But when you consider the fact that 72 per cent of people online aged 50 to 64 are on Facebook and 74 per cent of them own a smartphone, clearly something doesn't add up," she said.

Neumark was drawn to the field of age discrimination firstly because it was a ripe area for study, and later when he began thinking about ageing populations. He has worked on class action cases regarding age and employment.

People who work as labourers, for instance, might need to change careers in their 60s due to health or injury. The question, Neumark said, is whether they can get a job.

So what is to be done?

Neumark rejects the idea of increasing benefits to seniors, arguing there are too many poor children and families to justify it.

"If there's money to give, it should be given to the poor," he said.

He has floated the idea of extending affirmative action laws to older workers but admits "it will never happen".

"On average, older people do better. Women and black people do much worse," he said.