Ageism in the Workplace

I remember being the youngest person in my workplace and wishing I were older so I would fit in. I was trying to be a sponge and learn everything I could so I wouldn’t appear too inexperienced. I couldn’t wait to feel accepted as a peer.

Gradually, without even noticing, I was no longer the youngest person. I felt the beginning of pressure to perform now that I was no longer a newbie. As time went on, this desire to perform well meant I was seeking acknowledgement from management. One assumes there will be promotions and salary increases commensurate with experience. Sometimes this happens, sometimes not so much. Regardless, time passes and you continue learning on the job and improving your skill set. You gain expertise in your field and hopefully your colleagues and management are aware that you are an asset.

As more time passes, younger and younger people join your workplace. Often your boss is now younger than you and you may have felt self-conscious about the age difference. Around you the cultural references reflect the age of the people working in the company. Sometimes you may not catch on to them but you nod appropriately so they don’t think you are clueless. You realize too that the cultural references you make are no longer deemed relevant or interesting. A light bulb goes off when you recognize those references betray your age! Now you must try to disguise your actual age, or at least not draw attention to it.

If you’re a woman, this can mean you do everything in your power not to look your age. You probably opt to color your hair, knowing how difficult it is not to look older with gray hair. You also dress more carefully, not too dowdy but not too young-looking either, trying to find that perfect balance. You notice makeup advertisements featuring products to prevent you from appearing older.

Your inner voice is telling you the surrounding people are very aware of how much older you are, but wondering if that is really true or are you just being paranoid. So you assess the career paths of those around you. How many older employees do you see? How many are older than you, or at least around the same age? Are they in leadership positions or in positions lower down in the organization? You may recall some people retiring or being gently (or not so gently) being pushed out. Ultimately, employers lose the legacy knowledge of their business when their older employees leave. Typically, it’s not passed on to younger employees who also lose the opportunity to learn valuable life lessons from those wise colleagues.

The Laws

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was passed in 1967.

As per the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, age discrimination involves treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age. ADEA forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older. The law prohibits discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.

Here’s how it plays out in authentic life

We all know employers often have negative attitudes towards older workers. According to a survey by AARP in 2018, about 3 in 5 older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. More than half have been prematurely pushed out of longtime jobs and seventy-six percent see ageism as a hurdle in finding a new job. Age discrimination may be subtle but it persists even though older workers are not necessarily less healthy, less current in technological skills, or less productive than their younger counterparts. Older women face particular challenges in employment because of their gender and age, although men are not altogether exempt.

One example is a colleague I’ll call Steve. He was a Creative Director with an impressive portfolio. He noticed he was getting fewer and fewer calls for work. He also noticed he wasn’t winning as many projects as he used to. Clients told him they wanted a fresh approach. He got the message he was too old for them to hire him for their new projects.

Another example is a colleague I’ll call Ted. Ted had been in business for a long time and relied on referrals for getting additional work. When competing against others for new business, he noticed how the younger firms were increasingly winning the business he used to win. He got the message the clients wanted to work with people closer to their own age.

When I was let go from an agency, the director of HR increased my severance because she feared I’d sue for age discrimination. Frankly, the thought had never occurred to me, but I happily accepted the extra pay. In retrospect, I could see that my age, vis-à-vis other employees, was a problem for them. Culturally they thought I didn’t fit in because I didn’t want to go drinking after work as I had a family to go home to. I also didn’t work late into the evening. Most evenings I tried to slip out the door unnoticed, so I wouldn’t have to make excuses why I wasn’t staying late. Leaving to go home isolated me from my co-workers and ironically, I couldn’t talk to them about how it made me feel like an outcast because it would have brought attention to the age difference.

My conclusion was that despite my years of professional experience and all the knowledge I could bring to the agency, I wasn’t valued. Years later and even older, I found job hunting exceptionally difficult. After interviews often I was told the company was going in a different direction with another candidate or they were re-structuring the department and position. I could not discern how much was true or how much I was being rejected because of my age, and it would have been very hard to prove. Often the hiring manager would talk about “cultural fit”, meaning will you fit in with co-workers young enough to be your children and how adept are you with new programs, apps, platforms, etc. Recruiters follow your social media footprint to gauge how savvy and influential you may be. They can tell if your resume or LinkedIn profile date you, or they may assume your salary requirements exceed what they budgeted for the position.

However, the picture is not as bleak as it seems. There is growing awareness that is leading to action. One example is “The Guiding Principles for Age-Friendly Businesses”, authored by leaders of global industries such as Intel, Deloitte and Philips. There is more pressure on companies to follow their own age discrimination policies to avoid lawsuits, such as the class action suit filed in a San Francisco federal court accusing some large employers such as Amazon, T-Mobile and Capital One of deliberately targeting their Facebook ads to exclude older workers.

The best thing we can do is bring this problem out of the dark and into the light. Noticing that ageism truly exists is the first step. Talking about it is the second step. I suspect such conversations will become more prevalent as more workers age and are affected personally by age discrimination. Currently, this situation is an unfortunate reality, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. In a healthy environment we could have intergenerational conversations that would help end isolation of older workers and encourage greater contribution in the workplace. Let’s all do our part to hold companies accountable and for all of us to collectively empower our workforce.

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