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Workforce Ageism & Discrimination

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

Over my 30+ years working as a professional in various corporations, advertising and marketing firms, public health agencies, broadcasting, housing, non-profits, and with various colleges and universities the one thing I remember about each of them are the isms that have a name today. Regardless of the job or organisation they all had a few things in common. There was racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism that existed within the ranks of management. At the time, back in the 90s, many of these acts of discrimination were hidden behind veils instead of being honest. Today, things in the workforce appear to be more blatant, especially with those making decisions about hiring.

Over the years, each generation put down the previous one as they approach 50 years of life. Now, discrimination seems to appear earlier against those in the previous generation. Age discrimination or “ageism” involves stereotyping or discriminating against an individual due to their age. Unfortunately, workplace age bias is alive and well across diverse industries and businesses. For quite some time, it has been the elephant in the room. However, thanks to social media platforms, advocacy, and federal legislation, ageism is getting much-needed attention.

A friend and colleague of mine applied for a job with a well-known firm in California's Silicon Valley and was excited to receive an invitation to be interviewed for a marketing position. They excelled in their initial interview. Feeling very positive about the process, another call came through inviting him to a final interview. When he arrived for the interview with a different team, he immediately felt stressed by the mood in the room. He remembered that if he added up the ages of the 3 interviewers their age together may have been 80. After the interrogation of what they already knew about his excellent skills and work history, one young man stated, "Let me be honest, we feel that you are too old to be a part of our organisation. However, we may be able to find some consultant work for you." Shocked and paralysed by the bold comment, my intelligent friend thanked them for the opportunity and walked to the parking lot where he had left his car to try to understand what just happened. He sat in silence with tears running down his face for 30 minutes before driving home. He was 44 years old at the time.

A young colleague of mine from the Silicon Valley corporation that always referred to me as 'grandpapa' or 'grandmama' outside of the organisation at family gatherings told me how the interview panel congratulated each other for eliminating another annoying old person from spoiling their cool vibe in the company. My dear friend and colleague was 44 years old and devastated to learn that he was a victim of ageism. He refused to file a complaint, no matter how much I pushed for him to speak up. He looks no more than 35 years old, but the form indicated that he was older when he submitted his application.

So, what is the bias of ageism? Ageism, the bias of one group against another, has been used mainly to the bias of younger individuals toward older people. Inherent ageism is the awe-inspiring anxiety and a fear of growing old, and the desire to distance oneself from older people who are a portrait of our future selves. I have often shared with many who practice ageism that if they are lucky maybe they will live to reach old age so they can feel the discrimination from their younger generation. Most young people don't believe they will ever get old, but trust me, if they live long enough, they will without failure.

According to information from COTA Australia, ageism is endemic in our society. It's experienced by older people in the forms of speech by which they are addressed, evident in the media where negative and ageist stereotypes are promulgated, and in the health system where organisational and process bias invariably tends to give women and older people with their illnesses a lower priority. Ageism is also apparent in reduced access to employment, in the attitudes of employers toward older workers, in lack of access to appropriate training and professional development, and, in general, in the undervaluing of the skills, experience, and earned wisdom of older people. In Australia, older workers have found that experiences of age discrimination in the workplace have almost doubled in the last 5 years. Why do people fear working with or hiring a 50-year-old person with excellent skills? I have also found in the quests for roles with organisations, especially LGBTQI+ groups that pride themselves on diversity and serving all populations, and practice ageism and discrimination.

In America, the AARP (Association of Retired Persons) surveyed 3,900 individuals aged 45 and older who were either employed or seeking employment. The findings revealed that two out of three employees claimed they had witnessed or experienced ageism at work. Among the 61% of respondents who reported age bias, 91% believe such discrimination is widely practiced.

Even with the positive intentions of the ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act), ageism is still practiced in many organisations. In recent years, U.S. Congress has revisited this issue by considering updated legislation on anti-age discrimination in hiring practices, including The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act and Protect Older Job Applicants Act of 2021. Despite federal and local efforts to combat workplace age discrimination, it continues to occur every day. It can be conducted covertly or it can be blatantly overt. According to a recent investigation by the New York Times and ProPublica, many large and well-known organisations have engaged in ageism by launching recruitment campaigns but limiting advertisements to specific, younger age groups.

Age discrimination in the workforce is not just limited to adult employees, it affects women and men across the age spectrum. Often, younger staff will feel apprehensive about eventually being the next target or will not want to continue to work for a company that discriminates against their team members. According to the Journal of Gerontology, women have an increased risk of mental health issues. Age discrimination also results in financial strain and can threaten financial independence, producing depressive symptoms.

Healthcare facilities are another area where ageism is practiced daily. Although medical staff may deny it, they tend to treat older patients or those they think as older with little care. Often, they decide that the illness may not be as serious as the patient is claiming. Doctors and nurses can be less patient, less respectful, and less involved with the care of older people. More than not, their judgmental attitude is not based on facts. Both young and older people may face coercion or violence in healthcare due to the perception that their feelings do not matter. Staff may treat them with less compassion or force them to undergo certain procedures that may not be necessary. People of colour have always received discrimination when seeking medical care in almost every major hospital or clinic. When COVID first hit in America, many communities of colour were the last to receive accurate information from medical or public facilities.

Ageism comes in many shapes and forms. Here are a few of the most prevalent stereotypes that older workers feel holds them back.

  • Resistant to change and learning new skills

  • Don't understand or want to use technology

  • It cost too much to keep people 50+ employed

  • Complacent or unmotivated

  • Difficult to manage

Ageism or age discrimination in the workplace has a cost. In the workplace, age discrimination can result in demotivated employees, leading to a negative effect on productivity. Experienced (meaning older) workers leaving means a loss of institutional knowledge. Older workers are in a constant state of insecurity and anxiety. If they leave their job, it's believed they won’t get a new job due to their age.

According to the World Health Organisation, there are 3 ways to combat ageism. First, education is needed to dispel myths and stereotypes ad raise awareness of the impact of ageism. We need more intergenerational interventions, which create cooperation and empathy between age groups. And finally, there is a need for law and policy changes, which can reduce inequity and discrimination. These efforts require commitment from governments and institutions, as they hold the most power to create change.

So, how do we overcome or deal with ageism in the workforce?

  • Speak up. Don’t let yourself be pushed around because you’re older.

  • Engage in the world. People who stay active — mentally and physically — can overcome ageism more easily. Follow the news. Live in the present and look to the future. Show your children and grandchildren that you’re aware of what’s going on around you. Use email and social media if you feel comfortable, it can show your grandchildren you can communicate like they do.

  • Be positive. Attitude has a lot to do with how people can overcome ageism. Enjoy the experience and wisdom that come with age and put them to good use.

  • Be as independent as you can. There’s a concept of learned helplessness. If you assume that because you’re a certain age, you’re unable to do certain things, you won’t be able to do them. You won’t lose those abilities if you continue to do for yourself what you can. Go shopping, do your own banking, and eat out in restaurants when you get the urge to do so.

  • Surround yourself with younger people. Taking a class at the gym or the community college with younger people will help fight ageism. You may decide to learn a foreign language like Spanish, French, or Italian that will encourage you to plan your next vacation.

  • Volunteer. Join in activities at local community centres.

  • Exercise. Even if it's just taking long walks around your community.

If you are dealing with age discrimination on your job, start documenting everything that is happening to you or others with dates, times, and names of staff or managers bullying you or other employees. Once information has been gathered, start with your human resources department, the Equal Opportunity Office, file a complaint with the company, request mediation, seek guidance from an Employment Attorney, and file a lawsuit against the company.

Have you ever dealt with ageism or any other type of discrimination at your workplace? Please share how you dealt with it.

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