There seems to be a new code word for coveted young job candidates: “Digital natives.” And if you use it, you could be opening yourself up to an age discrimination charge.  

Vivian Giang, writing on, says that many employers, especially in the media, advertising and tech industries, have gotten away from the phrase “new grad” in favor of the “digital natives” moniker.

She cites a few examples from a Fortune survey:

Virginia Beach, VA-based software solutions firm, StratusLIVE, is currently seeking a lead generation specialist to join its team and according to its ad, the “ideal candidate must be a digital native” who adapts quickly to new technologies.

Zipcar, the car-sharing service, posted an ad for a director of creative and brand marketing and says this person “will be a proven creative leader and digital native.” Being a digital native also is on its list of “minimum” job requirements.

The Gannett-owned CBS TV affiliate in Washington D.C. notes in its ad that it is looking to hire digital natives.

In a posting for a project manager, advertising agency Wunderman, which is part of marketing giant Young & Rubicam Brands, listed as the top requirement being “a digital native” experienced in “existing and emerging digital platforms.”

Obviously, younger applicants are far likelier to be considered “native” to the digital world than their older counterparts.

So is this new term simply a smoke screen designed to hide employers’ intent to exclude older workers (which we suppose might have to be called “digital immigrants”)?

Three employment attorneys contacted by Fortune said it might very well be.

No formal complaints … so far

Giang points out that age discrimination complaints have spiraled upward, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), with 15,785 claims filed in 1997 compared to 20,588 filed in 2014. Out of the 121 charges filed last year by the EEOC for alleged discriminatory advertising, she said, 111 claimed the job postings discriminated against older applicants.

Joseph Olivares, a spokesperson for the EEOC, told Giang the agency has not taken a position on whether using the term “digital native” in an ad is discriminatory. But that’s only because somebody needs to file a complaint before the EEOC can investigate. So far, none have been filed.

So what’s to be learned here? Although there aren’t any claims on the books yet, you can bet there soon will be. And if you’re using the term in your job advertising, you’d better have a pretty strong argument that older workers — that is, workers over 40 — could be considered natives in a digital universe.

Good luck with that.


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