This Gets Old: How You Can Counter Ageism In The Workplace
Regardless of your personal assumptions about ability and competence, you certainly can’t discriminate against someone who is older. Problem is, so many people in the workplace do.
A new study from GOBankingRates of more than 500 adults over the age of 45, shows that 45 percent of older workers say age discrimination is common.
And “45 percent who’ve experienced discrimination said they were treated unfairly because of their age. The No. 2 most common cause of unfair treatment was a disability, with 35 percent of respondents naming this as the reason for the discrimination they’ve faced,” according to Yahoo Finance.
Patti Temple Rocks, a senior partner and head of client engagement at marketing agency ICF Next, writes in her new book, I’m Not Done: It’s Time to Talk About Ageism in the Workplace, that being aware of ageist tendencies—whether in conversation, practice or policy—can help eliminate some of the harms.
Determining if a culture is ageist is not so subtle. There may be overt patterns of behaviors, or gradual “shunning” of older workers.
Temple Rocks writes, “The ‘make them so miserable they will quit’ approach…can take many forms, such as excluding an older worker from some meetings all of a sudden, giving younger workers plum assignments, better sales territories, or better technology, and making an older worker feel forced to accept a role that isn’t a good fit. If there is a pattern of such behavior, it can be interpreted as age discrimination.”
Discrimination does not have to be as overt as fewer project assignments or not being invited to after work gatherings. More subtle comments about not understanding social media or throwing in “you wouldn’t understand” if someone is talking about pop culture or the latest news.
“Despite growing mindfulness around the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, one very toxic form of discrimination is often left out of the conversation: ageism,” writes Libby DeLana in Campaign.
“Yes, older employees can be more expensive, but they can also bring the kind of honed expertise in brand building and creative ideation that only comes from having years of industry experience,” DeLana writes.
According to Fast Company, ageism is thriving in today’s business climate. “Nearly two out of three workers over the age of 45 have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job, according to the results of a wide-ranging AARP survey done in 2018. Among the 61 percent of respondents who reported age bias, the vast majority (91 percent) believe this discrimination is common.”
While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had similar findings, Fast Company finds, “women particularly between 64 to 66 years old were more frequently denied job interviews than middle-age applicants age 49 to 51. Women in both those age groups were subjected to more age discrimination than older men.”
Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and belonging at Atlassian, tells Fast Company that inclusion means “emphasizing growth journeys and not just career paths.” She adds, “This means the focus is less on advancing up the ladder (although that’s an option) and more about what skills and experiences you’re gaining from your role. This has ultimately allowed us to improve the representation of teammates over 40 from 12 percent to 18.7 percent over the last three years.”
So what can you do to improve the culture in your workplace if you feel it may be ageist, and how can you promote your own level of inclusive behavior? Here are four key tips to dealing with ageism at work.
Assume nothing. Ageism affects new hires and younger workers who are Gen Z and Gen Xers as well. Do not assume any stereotypes about ability, exposure, capability or competence related to someone’s age. You do not know the back story of all your colleagues. Spend the time to find out more about your coworker before prejudging their likes or dislikes. Ask if an older worker wants to work on a difficult project. Ask about levels of mastery in specific areas.
Cultivate multi-generational relationships at work. Ask to work on projects where you can learn new skills and be partnered with younger workers. Mary Lee Gannon writes in Ladders: “Who will you develop a relationship with from each of the many generations that are in the workforce today? How will you do that? Join associations. Spend time in new places. Attend professional meetings. Go to networking events and MeetUp groups.”
Speak up. If colleagues make casual comments in meetings about being too old, or too young for something, say that is not OK. “Become an anti-ageism advocate,” writes Marci Alboher, vice president at Encore.org, and author of The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life. She tells Business Management Daily, “If you feel comfortable using your voice, find ways to encourage your workplace and your field to be more welcoming to older employees. You can get smart about ageism at www.OldSchool.info, a great resource created by anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite.”
Be mindful of your own biases. You do not know more simply because you are older and you do not know less about certain things simply because you are older. Keep an open mind. Practice tolerance, acceptance and inclusion. Ashton Applewhite, author of the book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism tells WBUR: “Self-preservationists, again, come in all ages… The idea that someone is not current simply because they are older is a cliche. Like, the cliche that older people are not curious. And I have to say one thing that actually gets my goat is this idea that older people do not care about the generations behind them and the world that we leave behind. That is actually — I mean, strong words — but I think that’s hate speech.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com