ageism in the workplace
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Examining the Many Forms of Ageism in the Workplace

Imagine being a millennial or Gen Z professional entering a job interview for a managerial position. During the interview, a committee member asks, “how do you handle working with or managing people that are more ‘experienced’ than you?” At face value, this comment can imply that you don’t have enough experience or lack the necessary skills or education for the job, even if that’s not true. Similar situations can arise when older individuals apply for more entry-level positions within an organization only to hear the job does not match their experience or that they are “overqualified.” 

In both instances, the committees conducting these interviews have — without explicitly saying it — made assumptions about a candidate based solely on stereotypes related to their age. And even if a candidate makes it through the interview process and secures the job, these types of preconceived biases can follow along with them, coming into play and dramatically impacting a person’s new working environment.

As a younger employee, people may inadvertently undermine your authority, even when they are your direct reports. You may be taken advantage of and asked to take on additional projects, or you’re asked to stay late at work because others assume you do not have valid commitments outside of the office. Your ideas may be dismissed, and you may find it difficult to be taken seriously. Forbes has reported that many employers are reluctant to hire people under 30 because they’re “unpredictable” and “don’t know how to work.”

In the worst cases of age discrimination, you may also be overlooked for advancement opportunities or higher-level roles in your office, or you simply may not be trusted to do important tasks. Glassdoor has reported that younger employees between the age of 18 and 34 are 25% more likely to have reported witnessing or experiencing ageism at work than employees over the age of 55.

But ageism is still a serious problem for older adults as well. Co-workers and managers may assume older employees are less adaptable, less tech-savvy, resistant to change or even a hindrance to progress. This stereotype exists even though a 2017 AARP study found that “65% of employees age 55 and up are ‘engaged,’ compared to 58% to 60% of younger employees.” According to the same AARP study, ageism against older employees is so severe that up to two-thirds of those aged 45-74 have experienced discrimination in the workplace.

Regardless of age, stereotypes based on age can also fuel affinity bias, a phenomenon where individuals gain opportunities based on whether they are “liked” by decision-makers or gatekeepers — whether your identity is similar to or matches the “ideal” of those in power can ultimately determine your opportunities, regardless of overall skill. 

In the workplace, those involved with the hiring process may make assumptions about a candidate and their “fit” based on this bias. In this case, affinity bias and a heavy reliance on stereotypes can often lead to age discrimination in the hiring process.

 

The Impacts of Ageism on a Business

The consequences of perpetuating ageist assumptions for employers are costly to both the workforce and an overall work environment. In limiting the hiring and/or promotion of younger employees based on “experience” metrics, employers hinder the opportunities for growth and innovation and a diverse workforce.

When given a chance, younger employees can often provide fresh, alternative perspectives on how to approach tasks efficiently, streamlining processes in ways that more senior-level staff aren’t familiar with. 

Similarly, in overlooking older employees based on perceptions of “overqualification” or lacking tech-savviness, employers miss out on countless years of applicable professional experience. Older employees can offer a wealth of teachable moments for a variety of professional situations and can significantly help junior employees grow and adapt within their office environments. (They may also be quite open to change and progress, despite the stereotype.)

 

Recommendations

  • Recruiters, interview committees and hiring managers should consider the kinds of questions asked during interviews. Standardizing the questions so that there is little room for assumptions about age or experience can help eliminate implicit bias.
  • Hiring decisions should always be based on skill and potential and not just experience alone. To ensure this happens, you may need to change the metrics you focus on when considering and evaluating candidates. 
  • Focus on age and generational cohorts in your DEI programs and efforts.
  • Develop a program of upskilling, where your workforce — both the older and younger members — are regularly taught new skills that help them perform better on the job. In addition to improving performance and confidence, studies show that the more skilled your workforce is, the happier it tends to be, and the better your employee retention will likely be overall.
  • Finally, always strive to respect all employees regardless of age. Whether they are “younger” or “older,” acknowledge a person’s title and respect it for what it is. Resist making quick judgments about a person, the work they’ve done previously and the work they’ll be doing in the future based solely on the year in which they were born.

 

About the author

Dr. Brittany Robertson is a Research Analyst with DiversityInc. She is a project lead for DiversityInc’s annual Women of Color and Allies event and assists with various research projects within the company. Dr. Robertson received her doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focus is on women of color and their experiences in the workplace.

 

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