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Unveiling Ageism in the Workplace: A Deeper Look

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With all the talk about diversity and inclusion, ageism in the workplace is sometimes overlooked. There's a reason for that.

Just last year, the American Psychological Association called ageism "the last socially accepted prejudice." She defines ageism as “discrimination against older people based on negative and inaccurate stereotypes.”

If we look at ageism as a dimension of diversity, I think it is necessary to change this definition a little.

What is age discrimination?

For the purposes of this article, we adopt the World Health Organization's definition: "Stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel), and discrimination (how we act) toward others or ourselves based on age."

We chose this definition because there are many cases of older generations exhibiting these behaviors toward younger people.

It can be something as light as a remark like "you'll understand that when you get older" or as egregious as the bashing of Millennials and Generation Z seen in mainstream media and rhetoric of the older generations.

Age discrimination against older workers

Stereotypes and prejudices against older workers not only impact the quality of these workers' experiences, but can also have a negative impact on overall health.

Ageism in the workplace can perpetuate the self-directed ageism that many people struggle with as they grow older. Studies show that older adults who engage in self-centered ageism are more likely to feel useless and have a shorter life expectancy.

Traditionally, anti-ageism towards older workers stems from the idea that they cannot keep up with the technological advances that drive innovation and trends in the workplace. This cliché is proving to be false with increasing regularity.

“Ageism is a strange case of discrimination because age plays a smaller role every year,” says Margaret J. King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis. "The prejudice is based on the belief that older workers have less to offer because they have fixed mindsets and are more difficult to train. This idea is being undermined by the fact that more and more people are becoming computer literate at an increasingly older age and the work is coming from the Ferne supports this trend."

The number of workers who can remember a time before the Internet, let alone computers and the variety of software solutions they offer, is rapidly dwindling.

In a world where retirement ages are likely to continue rising in the coming years, it is imperative that workplace leaders not only dispel the notion that older workers cannot keep up, but also create a work environment in which they feel safe feel like they are making mistakes and learning just like they did when they were young.

“People can learn anything with the right motivation and at any stage of life,” says King. "Medicine and good health habits extend lifespan. There is no age limit in this country, so motivated seniors don't even have to retire - and many can no longer afford that luxury anyway. What we really value is vitality, Learning ability and sociability, and these are attainable at any age.

But even if you are willing to learn, there are still age-related obstacles.

Debra Sengson, 64, worked in human resources for more than 25 years. After being laid off as human resources manager for a local plumbing company in her hometown of Naples, Florida, she went back to job hunting.

Her CV needed to be updated as she had been in her last position for almost 12 years. She also finally had to log into LinkedIn, which as someone who doesn't use social media at all, she wasn't particularly interested in doing.

But she took it, and when she started applying for jobs, the usual response from potential employers didn't make much sense to her.

"They said things like, 'You're too experienced,'" Sengson said. "Others said they could never afford me. I even said I would be willing to take a pay cut. I told others I would take on a smaller role or even work part-time. But they weren't interested and just said, that I wasn't a good fit for them. In one case, the hiring manager approached me with so much enthusiasm, but when she saw me, the enthusiasm was gone. She didn't think I would be over 60. I know this because They said they chose a candidate who they believed would last in the long run."

Exhausted by her experience as a job seeker, Sengson decided to take early retirement. Your experience is not unusual. The reasons for bias against older workers vary, but are often based on prejudices about retirement, health or vitality.

Age discrimination against younger workers

Age discrimination against younger workers is not necessarily perceived as frequently as the opposite, but it is a consistent problem if we apply our definition of age discrimination to behaviors commonly exhibited toward younger workers.

For many years, narratives about paying dues and the wisdom that comes with age have resulted in younger workers' ideas being dismissed or, in some cases, simply ignored.

In some cases, their optimism is dismissed as naivety and their credentials or experiences are downplayed.

Haley DeLeon is all too familiar with what is described here. In her career as a digital marketer, she has taken on a variety of tasks over the years, from strategy to content creation and management to IceHrm.

At a previous company where she was promoted to content marketing editor in her mid-20s, her progression into these roles was very rapid. But instead of being seen as “high potential” or a top performer, many of her colleagues only saw her age.

"I was put in the position of being an editor for writers significantly older than me, and the resentment was obvious," she said. "I was in my mid-20s, most of them were in their early to mid-40s. I had several editors that I regularly gave feedback to, and none of them implemented it."

Although she had more experience with content marketing than many of her colleagues who had moved into the discipline from journalism or education, DeLeon's feedback, advice, and offer to help train her was mostly ignored.
In several cases, if they didn't like the feedback she gave, they complained about her to their superiors at the time.

"One author specifically mentioned that he felt personally insulted by the situation," she said.

Soon after, DeLeon was promoted to human resources manager in addition to her role as editor. Instead of earning her the respect of her colleagues, this only exacerbated tensions.

“I remember a time when our team was instructed to use craft supplies to create a board that would represent our goals,” she said. "Everyone assumed that I would do all the work because at that point I was not only the youngest on the team, but also the only woman. Double bad luck. This was not only implied, but also loudly spoken by the older male team members pronounced."

Years later, DeLeon says she understands how difficult it was to report to someone 20 years younger than her, but she notes that it was difficult not to be taken seriously, especially because of her age.

"I've been seriously trying to help them transition from their journalism careers to something more focused on content marketing," she says. "I even hosted training workshops and brought donuts. In hindsight, I was probably a little overzealous, but I thought I was helping them."

But even this idea highlights how ageism can change the context of a person's perception. It would be unlikely that DeLeon's ambition and sincerity would translate into overzealousness if she were in her 40s at this point.

Age discrimination, like any other form of discrimination in the workplace, can have significant consequences.

By this I don't just mean the obvious cases, like the recent lawsuits against Elon Musk's Applicants over 50 were automatically rejected, even for desk jobs.

Employers should closely monitor these and other cases in the future. At a time when the U.S. House of Representatives has introduced a bill that would make age discrimination lawsuits easier, the impact of legal remedies against age-based discrimination is becoming increasingly clear.

"Age discrimination is more than someone specifically saying they don't want to hire you because of your age," said Robert Bird, a business law professor at the University of Connecticut. "Companies need to be aware of the environment that can lead to age discrimination or the offhand comments that can trigger age discrimination."

One example Bird gives is a supervisor's assumption that an older employee doesn't need training on the latest operating system or technology because he or she will only be with the company for a few more years.

Other examples include thoughtless statements that lay the foundation for illegal activity. When such comments are made and not acted upon, an environment is created in which ageism is acceptable.

To prevent this, Bird recommends prioritizing two measures.

"Firstly, it is necessary to ensure that this kind of talk or assumptions does not become part of the organization. This can be done either through training or education or by responding to these issues on the ground," he said. “Don’t let a casual remark like this pass, because it is the poisonous soil in which ageism can sprout.

"The other point concerns the language of corporate culture. What language is acceptable needs to be explicitly stated. Words like a 'vibrant' culture or, even more blatantly, a 'youthful' culture, can be code words for ageism. So it's in "It's okay to have a vibrant, engaging or dynamic culture, but you must make it explicitly clear that this means that the dynamism and vitality on which your culture is built is available to all and age is not a factor."

Bird also suggests making the criteria for layoffs explicit. Typically, companies lay off the most expensive employees on their payroll. However, the most expensive employees are usually older workers.

"When making a decision to fire people based on salary, companies need to make sure that that is the explicit criterion that they are firing someone because their costs are too high," Bird said. "That's perfectly legal under American law, but firing someone because they're 65 is not. When salary and age are closely related, it can be difficult to avoid the appearance of discrimination.

To combat ageism, Bird recommends emphasizing the value of each employee.

"Emphasize the positive attributes of older workers: Older workers have more experience, they have wisdom that younger colleagues may not have," he said. "They have the advantage of having more knowledge from the past that can help them predict how things might go. They have experienced crises and dealt with unstable times before and are able to answer the questions, that arise from these crises better than younger employees."

Impact on culture and people

Age is an important dimension of diversity in the workforce. When we talk about diversity and its impact on company culture, ageism can be just as detrimental as any other form of discrimination and is just as important to innovation and relationships with customers.

According to Ash Beckham, an expert in inclusive workplaces and leadership and author of "Step Up: How to Live with Courage and Become an Everyday Leader," the likelihood of ageism being present depends on a company depends on the prevailing culture of the industry to which it belongs.

“I think it depends on the underlying culture of the company,” Beckham said. "Is it a tech company that is fixated on being first with the latest and greatest and is quick to jump on to the next thing? This company is more likely to marginalize older workers - if it hires them at all.

Companies in industries where traditions are more important, such as: in finance, “experienced” employees may value more. But as work changes in every way, from where it is done to when it is done, to how it is done, older workers may find it more difficult to adapt to this new normal. This is the case in all industries."

Companies that want to address age discrimination in their industries and institutional cultures must begin creating awareness of age diversity in the early stages of employee training.

“Age needs to be included as a marginalized group in induction training and the way one looks at career development,” Beckham said. “Age discrimination affects both our youngest and oldest employees.”

As a first step, Beckham recommends mutual mentoring to highlight and value the contribution of both sides.

“Both the extensive knowledge of experienced employees and the fresh perspective of younger employees are necessary for the company to thrive,” said Beckham. “These mutually beneficial relationships help bridge the generational gap and expand our empathy for those who are not like us.


Although aging is a universal experience for all of us, we do not all age the same or have the same experiences in society. It is important to consider, across all age groups, how ageism intersects with the aspects of identity, such as race or ethnicity, that shape our overall experience in society and the workplace.

While we can all understand the complexities of aging and the feelings that come with it, it is important that we recognize these overlaps as we train HR professionals and reflect on our employees' experiences.

“Just as all BIPOC or LGBTQ people are not a monolith, neither are older people,” Beckham said. "The complexity of our intersecting identities, rather than our membership in a single marginalized group, determines our unique challenges when it comes to bias in the workplace. The intersection of age and gender is particularly pronounced in the workplace because of the perception that women become less valuable as they age loss, restrict career advancement or lead to unequal pay.

Media narrative or reality?

Age-discriminatory rhetoric is commonplace in the media. Not long ago, my generation (Millennials) was often accused of living at home and wasting our money on pointless things like retro video game consoles and avocado toast.

We ruined the workplace with our sense of entitlement and our desire for work to be something other than a horrible experience that we wanted to end every week.
Then Generation Z became the target of media reports that say they have taken cancel culture to the extreme and that they want "lazy jobs" filled with instant gratification and lots of free time to feed their screen addiction.

In response, the refrain "OK Boomer" made the rounds on social platforms and caught the attention of mainstream politicians, who turned age-discriminatory "jokes" into direct fighting terms.

“I think this falls into the trap of so many current age prejudices,” says Beckham. "It's because the media we consume aims to draw boundaries between us and them, between in-groups and out-groups. We are not externally motivated to cross these boundaries."

The power of deceptive truth

Media narratives can transform into perceived reality if repeated often enough.

This is the so-called apparent truth, the idea that people believe something to be true after hearing it multiple times. The more it is repeated, the more true it seems, until we end up believing something we knew to be false in the first place.

Fake news is based on an apparent truth that makes it possible. Take any conspiracy theory, regardless of where it comes from, and you will see this.

It may start from a social media account, but as it gains traction and is shared by a public trained to seek out its own likes and reshares, the idea spreads.

Before you know it, it will be picked up and discussed by experts on popular media platforms or even mainstream media. Your cousin at the family reunion is recycling the rhetoric he or she heard, and your old friend from high school is now posting "the facts" on Facebook. Your colleagues talk about it in the break room at work, and soon you're questioning your own interpretation of reality.

In the case of ageism, it's not hard to see how this comes to life. An older adult who listens to speeches about younger people may come to believe that they are all entitled, lazy, and do not represent traditional values.

But if you look objectively at the barista at Starbucks, you'll often see that he's a college student who works the night shift to pay extortionate rent and who actually hopes to have a career one day To have a house and a family.

As a millennial listens to his father-in-law make polarizing political statements, he may come to believe that the ageism rhetoric on social media is not entirely unwarranted and that he is partly responsible for the financial inequality and climate crisis that characterize our present. That the choices he made 30 years ago and the lifestyle he led shaped the current obstacles our generation faces today.

However, upon closer inspection, you see a person who did the best he could with the information and resources available to him at the time. That she, like everyone else, is a product of the environment in which she lives and is just as vulnerable to the illusory truths of her time as anyone else.

So why do we believe age-based stereotypes are so true when more than a cursory glance at most people tells us otherwise?

"What's really behind this is an unwillingness to empathize with people who aren't like us," Beckham said. "We are offended when our generation is pressed into a stereotype and our reaction is to do the exact same thing to another generation, but we miss the irony of what we do. We refuse to recognize the value of those who who are not like us to even acknowledge because we believe that we devalue ourselves if we do so.

Age discrimination in the workplace

Ageism is a very real problem. As we think about how we can combat the damage it is causing in our workplaces, we also need to think about how we can educate our employees about this dimension of diversity. This also includes making people aware that age discrimination can affect anyone.

“We view career progression as upward and to the right,” says Beckham. "The older we get, the more successful we are, the more success and responsibility and therefore power we have, and then how can that person even be discriminated against? But our perception of the world and reality rarely match.

One thing is certain: ageism is embedded in a societal culture that is more youth-oriented and always looking for the next big thing. Eliminating age discrimination in corporate culture is therefore complex and will take time. But according to Bird, it can be done.

"You can't have a meeting and tell everyone the culture has changed, and then the culture has changed," he says. "The tone has to come from the top, from senior executives and other leaders, saying: This is a value we have. And this is behavior we will not tolerate.

Another risk is that managers tend to be older, so saying this could be seen as self-serving. Bird advises that this message should come from people of different ages: "We don't treat someone differently just because they're older, we look at the content of their character and the quality of their work."

Once managers have taken up this idea and discussed it publicly, it should be included in relevant documents for hiring, firing, promotion and as part of the terms and conditions of employment. Then it can be operationalized.

"It has to be lived in meetings, and when questions about age come up, there have to be people who react quickly and say, 'That's not how we do it,' or who reward and encourage the right thing," says Bird. "Employees are often skeptical of mission statements and proposed cultural changes. Companies committed to this area cannot simply abandon their commitment to eliminating age discrimination just because the economy weakens, the competitive environment becomes tougher, or the company begins to Losing money A company that abandons its values when things get tough is a company that never had those values in the first place.

Ensuring age diversity in your talent pipeline is just as important as race, gender, or any other dimension of diversity.

Your hiring processes will benefit from the use of diversity recruiting tools and a top-down message that is embedded in your company culture and reflected in your job descriptions.

Combatting ageism requires a cultural shift. With IceHrm's tools and a commitment from leadership, we can create workplaces where age diversity thrives.

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