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Ageism in the workplace: it's impact and what we can do about it

Ageism in the workplace: it's impact and what we can do about it

Artwork by: Syhmen

  • What is ageism in the workplace?
  • What does ageism look like in the workplace?
  • What are the three types of ageism?
  • What about unintentional ageism?
  • How do you fight ageism in the workplace?
  • 1. Keep your skills up to date
  • 2. Face the discrimination head-on
  • 3. Don’t be afraid of reporting incidents of ageism
  • 4. Get political
  • Key takeaways

The diarist Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” It’s tempting to believe that you’ll never fall prey to ageism in the workplace, but the truth is, it happens more than we care to admit. In this article, we’ll discuss the phenomenon of ageism in the workplace, how to mitigate it, and the steps you can take to fight back.

It’s challenging being an older person in the workforce. You have years of experience under your belt, but you’re surrounded by people who are younger, and faster, and think they can do the job better than you. And as the pace of technology seems to move faster and faster, it can be tough for anyone—no matter their age—to keep up. Unfortunately, ageism in the workplace is a real and serious issue. So what can be done about it? Identifying the impact of ageism (also known as age discrimination) in the workplace is the first step in making sure that the work environment is inclusive and welcoming for people of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of experience. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the impact of ageism in the workplace and what can be done about it, including:

  • What is ageism in the workplace?

  • What does ageism look like in the workplace?

  • What are the three types of ageism?

  • What are examples of ageism in the workplace?

  • How do you fight ageism?

What is ageism in the workplace?

Broadly speaking, ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice against, and discrimination of others due to a person’s age. Ageism, or age discrimination in the workplace, typically applies to employees over the age of 45 and is “treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age,” according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It may seem illogical on its face. After all, older employees often come with a wealth of experience and knowledge. But often, the people in charge don’t see it that way (or conveniently choose to ignore it). And while there are laws on the books to prevent this sort of discrimination, such as the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), it still happens all the time. 

Unfortunately, the consequences of ageism in the workplace go beyond a paycheck. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 6.3 million cases of depression around the world are believed to be caused by ageism.

What does ageism look like in the workplace?

Ageism can take many forms, including:

  • Noticing a pattern of a company only hiring younger workers (under age 35).

  • Having more challenging assignments taken away or assigned to younger employees.

  • Encouraging isolation, whether it's the employee's desk location or not being informed about meetings and presentations.

  • Being “forced out” with early retirement packages.

  • Suddenly receiving negative performance reviews or unduly harsh criticism.

  • Layoffs that are largely made up of older workers.

Even the choice of words in internal communications can be a form of ageism. If the company is consistently using words like "energetic," "fresh," or "young," it can signal to older employees that they're valued less than others.

Statistical Insight

According to a survey performed by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), ageism takes many forms in the workplace:

  • 32 percent have heard “negative remarks” about their co-worker’s age from a colleague or manager.

  • 15 percent feel their age has prevented them from getting hired for a job.

  • 13 percent said they were passed over for a promotion due to their age.

What are the three types of ageism?

Ageism can affect all types of people in every facet of life—even children as young as four are subject to the prevailing stereotypes about aging. And it can take more than one form, especially in the workplace, making it especially insidious and difficult to combat.

In general, there are three types of ageism:

  1. Institutional ageism. When a company explicitly and obviously discriminates against its older workers.

  2. Internalized ageism. When a person comes to believe the ageism that is leveled against them.

  3. Interpersonal ageism. Happens during social interactions, such as the “okay, boomer” trope.

If you take a look at the media or news, or even your personal life, you’ll see that ageism isn’t limited to the workplace. And it can involve other types of discrimination as well, such as racism (especially in the form of microaggressions), sexism, or any other type of "ism" that is so prevalent in our society.

What about unintentional ageism?

The definition of “unintentional ageism” is pretty clear—the person engaging in this behavior is unaware they are doing so. It doesn’t always take the form of being passed over for a job. It’s often wrapped in a cloak of passive-aggressiveness and dismissed as “just joking.” For example, giving an older employee black balloons that say, “RIP” or “Over the hill” on their birthday, or describing an error as “having a senior moment.”

Statistical Insight

As reported by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), almost a third of US workers have been subject to age discrimination at some point in their career. Of these workers, 72 percent said they considered quitting their job as a result. Additionally 26 percent of US workers 50 and older say they have been the target of age-related remarks in the last six months, and 17 percent of HR professionals have received reports of perceived ageism in the workplace.

How do you fight ageism in the workplace?

It’s clear that age discrimination in the workplace is an issue, but even in a society that often seems to worship at the altar of youth, you don’t have to accept it. Workers 45 and older make up a substantial portion of the workforce, and that trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate for people 75 and older is projected to increase from 8.9 percent in 2020 to 11.7 percent in 2030. If you’re over 45 right now, think about examining the treatment of older workers in both your company and your industry. It might seem hopeless sometimes, but there are concrete steps you can take to tackle the issue of workplace ageism:

1. Keep your skills up to date

You’d be hard-pressed to find an industry that hasn’t changed over time, so it's important to stay current with new technologies, developments, and priorities. While you might be hesitant to ask your employer for training, lest it shine a spotlight on any perceived deficiencies, don’t let it hold you back. Seek out relevant online certification courses, or enroll in continuing education classes through your local community college. And make sure to stay informed by reading industry publications, either online or in print.

2. Face the discrimination head-on

Ageism exists, and it doesn’t help anyone to pretend otherwise. If a co-worker or manager seems hesitant about your abilities, address it directly by telling them that you do know how to use particular software, or that you have no issues working with younger people. But remember, your attitude is key. If your way of responding to ageism is to be accusatory, it won't get you as far as staying more neutral. For example, if a co-worker automatically assumes you can't perform a task and offers to help, don't accuse them of malevolent intentions. Just say, "Thank you, I can handle this task on my own." You're more likely to get a positive reaction and reduce the chances of incorrect assumptions in the future.

3. Don’t be afraid of reporting incidents of ageism

While you can take responsibility for your own actions, don’t fear reporting incidents of ageism if they do indeed occur in your workplace. The key is to be consistent, keep emotional outbursts out of it, and be thorough and detailed in your record of the facts. This means that instead of saying a co-worker was “rude” about your age and your abilities, you can document that he or she asked you thirty times over the last six months when you planned to retire. If you don’t get anywhere with your HR department, file a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While it's against the law for a company to punish you for contacting the EEOC, it still happens, so make sure to seek advice from an attorney before you take this step.

4. Get political

There is power in your vote, and that vote can help end ageism in the workplace. While federal age discrimination laws haven’t progressed much recently, that doesn’t mean the fight is over. If you’re in the US, push for your congressional representatives to support the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act as well as the Protect Older Job Applicants Act, which will help guard older workers from inequity in both the hiring process and on the job.

Remember, as older workers stay in the workforce, whether due to increasing retirement ages, or a lack of financial retirement resources, employers need to take action to fight against ageism. Remember the “paradox of aging,” which determined that even though a person might not be at their physical peak, their happiness doesn’t necessarily decline along with it. Older workers should be aware of their worth, and take the necessary steps to protect it.

Ready to make a change? Check out our job search strategy tool on Career.io!

Key takeaways

  1. Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice against, and discrimination of others, due to a person’s age. 

  2. Almost two out of three workers over the age of 45 have been subject to age discrimination. 

  3. To fight back against ageism in the workplace, take an inventory of your skills, be confident, and don’t be afraid to file a complaint if necessary.

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