Ageism in the workplace: Let’s talk about it
Updated: Jul 3
“How old are you?”
It’s one of the most benign questions we become accustomed to answering as children. Once we’re able to rattle off a number instead of holding up fingers, we’re inevitably on our way to one day keep this figure a closely-held secret.
Youth is perceived to have various advantages; the world of work has historically grasped onto this belief. But at what age does one have too little experience? And at which milestone are our skills truly obsolete?
In America, ageism on the job abounds despite the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which forbids age discrimination against those age 40 or older. According to a recent AARP survey, nearly eight out of 10 older employees say they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
Yet even early career professionals are being dismissed by more senior colleagues as inexperienced or unreliable.
What’s going on? Is this a uniquely American phenomenon?
In many countries, as investor Nicole Priel noted in Calcalist, “...retirement becomes compulsory at an indiscriminately determined age.” For example, employees as young as 45 have reportedly struggled to find jobs or acquire management positions in Israel, a country known as a thriving innovation center with a typically robust economy.
In my country, Kenya, The Equality Act protects citizens against all forms of discrimination. However, ageism is not a widely discussed topic. There may be a lack of awareness regarding legal protections, and more importantly, people rarely speak up when they face this type of discrimination. It may be more prevalent in some industries than others. For example, Kenyan women and youth are often discriminated against in the agricultural sector.
Thankfully, a recent ideological shift has led more organizations to adopt an age-diverse workforce. Jean Acciu, Senior Vice President for AARP, calls this “The Great Realization.” AARP recently published a report that challenged organizations to highly consider age inclusion: “You might associate age in the workplace with cost and decline—when in fact, it's an opportunity for growth.”
The Dangers of Generational Stereotypes
Nearly half (46%) of Australian employers plan to increase their employment levels in June 2023. Unfortunately in the same breath, 1 in 6 organizations would not consider hiring people over 65, based on a recent survey by Australian HR Institute and the Australian Human Rights Commission.
While the future might look promising, we cannot ignore the fact that ageism still prevails in the workplace. In the case of Australia for instance, the statistics are worrying. To find answers, Lisa Leong of This Working Life—a podcast hosted by Radio National at Australian Broadcasting Corporation—asked experts to unpack ageism in the workplace.
Generational bias is putting the workforce into ‘boxes’:
📦 First box: Older Workers (Silent Generation, Baby Boomers)
The recent survey by the Australian HR Institute and the Australian Human Rights Commission mentions that 1 in 6 organizations in Australia would not consider hiring people aged over 65.
Sarah McCann-Bartlett, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian HR Institute, mentioned that often companies justify this by stating reasons such as: they are not getting enough applications, the perception that older workers are not quite as good at using technology or their salary expectations are too high.
Annette Wamuyu* a 62 year old nurse in Kenya, tells me that she feels alone at work. Due to the age difference between her and her colleagues, they have few interests in common. “I can tell they want me to retire. Sometimes, they think I’m too old to work but my patients tell a different story. If they looked past my age, things would get done better.”
Annette believes that the discrimination slows down progress at work and the lack of team effort makes work harder. For her, age should not be the greatest factor to consider, skill matters.
These reasons are pervasive yet often are not based on fact. “We need to be able to understand when we are applying a stereotype or acting in a biased way,” McCann-Bartlett emphasized.
📦 Second box: Middle-Aged Workers (Gen X)
Middle-aged workers are worried about the future of work. Stephanie Wood, a journalist and author in her 50s, shared her experience with ageism in the podcast episode. “I feel like I am the ‘cooper’ of the 21st century… sort of like I am the crazy woman running after a bus that’s disappearing into the distance…it’s really scary."
Wood wonders if her ‘time is over’ and whether she has to ‘make way’ for the younger folks. While anti-discriminatory laws exist, these biases tend to influence workers’ thinking, even if unintentionally. (In practice, do employees or managers consider these laws on a day-to-day basis?)
Professionals in this cohort are often occupied with caregiving from two perspectives: looking after aging parents and/or raising children and teens.
📦 Third box: Younger Workers (Millennials, Gen Z)
Younger workers can’t escape ageism. For example, many believe that Millennials prefer shorter stints in a role and are quick to leave if another opportunity arises. “One stereotype is that Millennials are job jumpers. People believe that we cannot be loyal to a job,” explained Kristi DePaul Founder and CEO of Founders.
This perception could lead organizations to avoid investing in this cohort. And that’s just one of the many detrimental effects of generational stereotypes. DePaul says that ultimately, these boxes are convenient for organizations, and that “It is possibly one of the most pervasive ways we continue to be biased against other people at work.”
Gen Z folks have been labeled as inclusion-focused digital natives who spend much of their time online. Consider how that might influence policies toward training or promoting them, and you see where the lines between customization and bias blur.
It almost seems ‘permissible’ to categorize people in these boxes. And it happens to professionals of all ages.
I spoke to Stella,* an advocate working at a Kenyan law firm who shared her experience with age discrimination. “I always have to reaffirm myself because they don’t take me seriously,” she said. “Comments on being young always outweigh the value of my input.”
Emotionally, Stella added that her colleagues have an easier time talking to her about ‘light’ issues, brushing off her perspective because she is young. “They don’t try to hide it, they tell me I should wait my time to share my opinions.” While experience does create more trust and sharpen one’s skills, it’s essential for those who are starting out to have an environment where they feel respected, and valued.
Why do generational stereotypes persist, and how do they impact the workplace?
“People are so diverse and complex,” DePaul said. “When you are able to put people into a cohort (whether or not it actually exists) it helps people make assumptions of how others will behave and what they prioritize.”
Sometimes, we even place these biases on ourselves. In this episode, Julie Henry, a professor in the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology, talked about the psychology of recognizing these biases and getting ourselves out of generational thinking. “It is important for us to recognize when we are leaning towards certain biases based on our age group as this often reflects on others,” Henry said.
Ageism affects how organizations perform and influence how team members are onboarded, trained, mentored, how teams collaborate and much more. “All these factors can pose a great risk to organizations. There are many costs, both seen and unseen,” DePaul emphasized.
How can you prevent ageism?
“You have to ask yourself: What kind of leader are you?” posited Andrea Ho, Discipline Lead, Radio and Podcasting at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. She paints the picture of a thoughtful leader that is cognizant of the fact that these biases exist, but has intentionally decided to move away from them.
Ho posed a challenge to HR leaders: It’s your job to dismantle and question these biases at work. “We are told if we want to become great leaders, we have to think differently,” she said. “We have to do that at recruitment and hiring as well.”
How can employers and employees move away from ageism in the workplace?
Conduct unconscious bias training: “It’s not only recruiters that can benefit from this kind of training; line managers also have a big say in the recruitment process, ” Ho said.
Adjust your resume: Hiring managers have zeroed in on certain details in a CV, such as names, date of birth or college timeframes as a means for eliminating candidates. Because of this, Ho recommends that applicants exclude their date of birth from CVs to avoid being ‘boxed’.
Shift company policies: In HBR’s The Big Idea column, authors DePaul and Vasundhara Sawhney said that organizational leaders must ask themselves a key question: ‘How do we design policies and processes that protect us from ageist behaviors, rather than relying on assumptions or stereotypes?’
While organizations have a long way to go to address these generational biases, there is hope for change. The first step? Recognizing that your workplace must proactively address this often subtle bias.
The benefits to doing so go beyond building morale and a positive environment, though those would be worthwhile in their own right. It’s becoming increasingly clear that age-diverse organizations can be game changers for innovation. There is much more to unpack on this topic and the ABC Radio National podcast episode takes a deeper dive. Listen in here.
About “This Working Life” Podcast
This Working Life is a podcast hosted by Lisa Leong of Radio Nation at ABC. It looks at how we work and why we work, explores ideas that are shaping changes in workplaces from practices to culture and leadership and introduces you to people who have interesting and remarkable stories to tell. Get more information here.