While discrimination based on age, also known as ageism, is recognized and illegal according to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), you or someone you know has likely experienced this form of discrimination in the workplace. For so long, the narrative has been that older workers can’t handle the day-to-day demands of the workplace, that they cost too much in both benefits and salary, and that their cognitive abilities are simply not up to the task of continuing in the workforce.
A study done by ProPublica and the Urban Institute in 2019 found that 56% of workers over the age of 50 reported being pushed out of their jobs by their employers, many before they were ready to retire. And even more recently, AARP’s annual survey found that 80% of their older employees have seen or experienced age-based discrimination in the workplace.
Clearly, despite the illegality of age discrimination in the workplace, ageism continues to exist. Overcoming ageism in the workplace starts with changing the narrative about aging in the workplace and in general.
Changing the narrative on aging
When we consider growing old, one of our biggest fears is losing our cognitive abilities. We’ve been taught to dread aging for fear of diagnoses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, but they’re not nearly as common as you might think. In fact, only 10% of the population will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in their lifetime, and that diagnosis generally comes in a person’s late 80s or 90s. The even better news? Those who approach aging with fact-based attitudes rather than fear-based attitudes are less likely to get Alzheimer’s, even if they’re genetically predisposed to the disease.
While some members of the younger generation see their older coworkers as slow to adopt new technologies, data shows that adoption levels are fairly even across age ranges. Workers above the age of 55 use the same number and forms of technology a week as workers aged 18-34.
Aging doesn’t impact our ability to work in the way we’ve grown to think. As we’ve learned more about human ability and capacities, it’s become clear that we can stay in the workforce for more extended periods.
Changing the narrative in the workplace
Many industries are working to change the narrative around aging. Surprisingly, the industry making the most significant change is the beauty industry. In 2017, Allure magazine committed to no longer using the term “anti-aging” to describe beauty products in their magazine. Similarly, Maye Musk, a 74-year-old model, recently became the oldest model ever to be featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
These changes are incredible, but there’s work yet to be done. Across all industries, individuals need to take steps to combat ageism in the workforce. Here are a few places to start.
Avoid self-deprecating jokes about your age. These jokes play directly into the culture that has normalized ageism, allowing it to easily continue without being challenged.
Recognize the benefits of getting perspectives from all generations. From technology use to life experience, no generation has it all figured out. Diversity in age, as well as other areas, makes for a stronger team.
Be transparent about your age. Don’t teach your children it’s rude to ask people their age—people are whatever age they are, and that’s okay.
Avoid comparing your success to the success of others. Success has nothing to do with age and is achieved by people at varying stages of life.
Put it in perspective: aging is the best-case scenario! The alternative to aging is death. Putting this in perspective can help you appreciate the experience of aging.
Employers can help change the narrative in the workplace as well:
Don’t set a minimum age for becoming a partner in the firm.
Offer training and continuing education opportunities to all employees, regardless of age or experience level.
Stay away from age-related interview questions and remove discriminatory language like “recent college grad” or “digital native” from your job descriptions.
Train managers on behavior that is considered ageist, what the consequences are of such behavior, and how they should handle any such conduct that happens in their department.
Overcoming ageism in the workplace isn’t easy, but we can all contribute to being part of the solution. Whether you’re approaching the situation from the point of view of an employer or an employee, you can take steps toward making change. No matter your age, you can contribute to your organization’s success and be part of a workplace culture that accepts and welcomes employees of all ages. You can help recognize the unique strength of an age-diverse team and what every individual on that team can bring to the table.
Do you need help with your firm’s hiring and talent strategy?
Boomer Talent Consulting can help you get clarity on your firm’s most critical talent objectives and create a go-forward strategy suited to your firm’s unique needs. Schedule a discovery call today to begin implementing an organizational structure that is positioned and accelerating into the future.
As a Project Coordinator for Boomer Consulting, Inc., Katelynn is excited to work with a company that prioritizes allyship, cultural awareness and inclusion. Her primary focus is supporting Boomer Consulting’s Project Managers and handling events at the Accounting Innovation Center.