Ageism is conscious and unconscious prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination against people solely based on their age. Although the term is not new—it was coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler—its effects are being felt in the workplace more strongly today than ever. As people live longer and stay in the workforce longer, the issue of ageism is having a detrimental effect on older workers and posing a challenge for hiring, retention, and engagement practices.
Aging is a fact of life; though many of us fear it, it’s something we must face. The good news is that with the average life expectancy being higher than it’s ever been, more people will get to age—and age better than they might have in the past!
Let’s Reverse the Ageism Trend
Ageism is especially rampant in the business world, where even highly experienced and knowledgeable employees have an “expiration date.” And that expiration date is becoming ridiculously early—now, many people in their 40s are terrified of turning 50, and even people in their 30s worry about turning 40 for fear of becoming unemployable.
And yet, we have a large population of people in their 50s, 60s, and even into their 70s who are healthy and vital and want to—or need to—continue to work. According to a recent analysis by the Urban Institute and Pro-Publica, more than half of workers over 50 lose their jobs before they are ready to retire, and 9 out of 10 of them never recover their previous earning power. This is happening today in spite of the fact that we have record-low unemployment, restricted immigration, and an aging workforce that wishes to remain employed.
What’s the key to combating ageism; reversing this trend; and building harmonious, efficient, and multigenerational workforces?
It’s Time for a Reality Check
The most inaccurate biases are often embedded in corporate culture. These include beliefs that older employees have low energy, they have outdated—or nonexistent—technical skills, they will not be a good cultural fit, and they just want to cruise toward retirement.
In reality, most want a job they can stick with and are highly motivated to make a meaningful contribution. In contrast, 58% of Millennials plan to leave their jobs in 3 years or fewer, according to a study at the London School of Business.
Rethink Your Age Prejudices
Older workers generally have a good work ethic and bring insight and problem-solving skills borne of years of experience. Many have become more efficient and productive during the course of their careers and can actually get more done in less time.
Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order, says, “The big myth is performance-related: that older workers don’t perform as well. Yet on almost every dimension of job performance, research shows that older workers perform better than younger workers.”
Remove Age-Related References from Recruiting Materials
Employers should ensure that their websites feature images of a diverse workplace, including employees of all ages. They should remove age-related questions from job applications and eliminate experience caps (e.g., “3 to 5 years”) from job ads and posts.
Chip Conley, the strategic adviser for hospitality and leadership at Airbnb, says in his book Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, “Research shows that adding some experienced workers results in the team and all team members improving.” We need to combat ageism both from within the corporate culture and through support for older jobseekers.
Look on the Bright Side
According to an AARP survey on multigenerational work and mentorship, 7 in 10 workers say they like working with generations other than their own. The survey also revealed that older workers value the creativity and skills their younger colleagues bring to the workplace, and younger workers appreciate their older coworkers for their value as teachers and mentors, for helping them to consider different perspectives, and for making the workplace more productive.
Though some statistics are bleak, others are more positive. Regardless of what we may read in the media about the state of the labor market and company initiatives for diversity and inclusion, we need to continue to work together to fully integrate older workers so we can have the most diverse and innovative workforce possible.
Kathleen Marvin is a certified career coach at RiseSmart focusing on professional and personal development.