More than a third of US adults report fewer than 6 hours of sleep a night, making chronic sleep restriction a growing public health concern. Sleep curtailment is associated with an increase in industrial accidents, motor vehicle accidents, medical and other occupational errors. Young adults are more vulnerable to acute sleep deprivation than older adults, but less is known about how young vs. older adults respond to the more commonly experienced chronic sleep restriction. To test the hypothesis that young adults are more vulnerable to chronic sleep loss than older adults, we compared data from young and older adults who underwent three weeks of chronic sleep restriction (equivalent to 5.6 hours/24 hours) combined with recurrent circadian disruption in an experiment that enabled us to separate the influences of the sleep-wake homeostatic process, the circadian timing system, and the chronic sleep deficit. We found that while young and older adults reported similar levels of subjective sleepiness, objective measures of sleepiness revealed that young adults were more vulnerable and had more attentional failures than the older adults. These results have important public health implications, particularly related to prevention of sleep-related motor vehicle crashes in young drivers. Further research is needed to understand the neurobiological basis of these age-related differences.