The Bureau of Labor Statistics surveyed workers in the United States and found that 64% of workers had witnessed or experienced ageism in the workplace. At the same time, more and more people are planning to work past the age of 66.
Studies have shown that ageism negatively impacts both employees and employers. It can lead to mental and emotional distress, decreased workforce, turnover costs, and legal fees.
But how do we combat it?
This article will explore ageism in the workplace – what it is, how it can surface, and what we can do to combat it.
What is Ageism?
The law defines ageism as “treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age.”
Discriminating based on age has been illegal in the United States since 1967, with the passing of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). This act makes it unlawful to discriminate against anyone 40 years or older simply based on their age. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces these anti-discrimination laws.
Interestingly, the act doesn’t address ageism against younger people, though some states later passed laws to protect people under 40.
In the Workplace
Age discrimination in the workplace might look like this:
- Professional development opportunities are given exclusively to younger workers.
- Older employees receive fewer invitations to meetings or workplace activities.
- People make unwelcome comments or jokes about age or unfitness for work.
- Spoken or unspoken expectations that older employees don’t need as much time off for family since they don’t have young children at home.
Classifying Different Types of Age-Related Bias
When discussing ageism in the workplace, we typically refer to three different types of discrimination.
Implicit ageism is a form of implicit bias, a term that is getting deserved attention in today’s workplace.
Bias is a preference for or aversion to a person or group of people, usually in a way that is unfair or close-minded.
We refer to implicit bias when the person with those negative thoughts or feelings is either “unaware of them or mistaken about their nature.” Each of us needs to personally examine our assumptions about others.
Stereotyping is making sweeping assumptions about an entire group of people. In terms of ageism, stereotyping assumes that older applicants or employees aren’t able to compete with younger talent.
A few examples of these harmful and untrue stereotypes are:
- Older workers are slower than younger workers.
- Older workers are less physically fit.
- Older workers can’t learn new concepts or skills.
- Older workers are forgetful.
Many studies have debunked these negative beliefs about the waning competency of older workers. Older workers often show equal or better results than their younger counterparts.
And yet, these harmful assumptions continue to be pervasive.
Digital ageism is discrimination based on someone’s perceived ability to use or adapt to digital tools and roles. It’s the automatic assumption that an older person will always be worse at using digital technology than someone younger. Some people call this the “digital divide.”
While this assumption may seem reasonable, it’s inaccurate. Evidence reveals that this digital divide is more of a “digital spectrum” – and not necessarily based on age.
As always, employers should evaluate people based on their particular skills and experience, not on a sweeping assumption about “people their age.”
5 Powerful Tips To Fight Ageism
Both employees and employers can be powerful agents against discrimination. Here are five tips for both older employees and employers to fight ageism.
1. Educate Yourself
If you feel concerned about facing ageism, make sure you understand your rights. Get familiar with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the laws within your state that protect you from discrimination.
For employers, ensure that you include information about ageism in your training materials. Be very clear that your company has a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination based on age. Open up a dialogue about ageism, and create safe spaces for employees to share their experiences.
2. Document Discrimination
If you feel you have been a victim of discrimination or you have witnessed ageism, make sure to document what happened. Write down the date and the names of anyone else who witnessed the interaction.
Employers should create a formal process for reporting ageism and enforce it. Send a clear signal that you won’t tolerate age discrimination.
3. Know Your Worth
Age is an asset. Employees over 40 have more experience in both life and work. If you’re in that age group, know your value to the company. You can be a mentor and example to younger workers and focus on fine-tuning your work.
Employers should also consider age as an asset. Older workers bring experience and, often, a higher commitment to their company. Studies have shown that 76% of older employees have been at their company for five years or more.
4. Seek Growth
Employees over 40 should continue to seek growth opportunities. Don’t just settle in. Part of knowing your worth is continuing to invest in yourself.
Be proactive – look into professional development opportunities, training, and paths for promotion. Ask your boss directly to be considered for these growth areas.
Employers should also seek opportunities to invest in workers over 40. Invite them to participate in professional development.
5. Create Mentorship Opportunities
Mentorship is one of the best ways to stand out and make an impact. As an older employee, you have years of experience to share with others. Consider signing up for a mentorship group or asking your HR department about mentorship opportunities.
We highly recommend that employers set up formal mentorship opportunities. Mentorship objectively reduces discrimination across the board. It’s also a great way to improve your employees’ performance.
Workplace Discrimination Is Not OK
Whether you’ve witnessed it or been a victim of workplace discrimination yourself, you should know that ageism in the workplace is illegal and wrong. It can take many forms and isn’t always aggressive, but once we know how to recognize it, we can take steps to combat it.
It’s on us! Both employees and employers can work together to make their companies safer and better places to work.