Ageism in the Workplace

By Barbara Jaworski
Agism is the last bastion of prejudice in the North American workforce.
It’s rarely blatant – that’s illegal – but many employers send subtle but clear messages to older workers that they’re not wanted.
And at a time when the generation that still dominates the workforce – KAA-Boomers – are now mostly over 50, that’s not a wise business decision.
Companies should be doing all they can to retain the decades of industry and organizational experience and wisdom this demographic holds.
That message of not being welcome begins with the job ad. Job postings often include youth-oriented code words such as “flexible,” “energetic” and “fresh.”
Any Boomer knows that applying for these jobs will be a waste of time.  The message is again clear on corporate web sites featuring pictures of fresh-faced 20-somethings and in interviews when recruiters ask older candidates questions such as, “Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?” This is appropriate for someone just starting out or in mid-career, not for someone who may be focusing on helping an organization work towards its goals by contributing a lifetime of knowledge.
Ageism exists in the workplace when employees over 50 are passed over for promotions, career opportunities and training and where social committees and workplace lunch ‘n’ learns focus their attention on the needs and wants of younger workers.
It’s obvious when an employee, having marked his or her 25-year milestone at the company, suddenly starts having their work criticized by their boss or is told that their skills no longer match the job.
It’s not uncommon to see older employees who are suddenly assigned work well below their positions to nudge them toward the door.
Interestingly, It’s often not until a manager lets a mature employee go, then tries to fill that position, that the realization sinks in: It will take two or three new hires to meet the requirements of that position as it now exists.
So it’s a subtle prejudice, but it’s a reality.
But why do we accept this? Because of myths and stereotypes about older workers that permeate western society: that those over 50 are resistant to change, technophobic, less energetic, less creative and less innovative, don’t want to learn new skills and new processes and are just putting in time until retirement. So why bother to develop the career of someone who is 55? It’s a poor return on investment.
Of course, none of this is correct. And regarding the last point, the reverse is actually true. Younger workers have higher turnover rates than older workers — according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers 45–54 stayed on the job twice as long as those 25–34 – so concentrating training on those under 40 should be deemed the higher risk.
The truth is that older workers don’t differ much from their younger counterparts.
Creating an open and equitable workplace
Organizations that sincerely want all their employees to reach their full potential and have high commitment, retention and productivity levels need to create an equitable workplace where workers of any age feel valued and respected. So where to begin? 
  1. The public profile. It begins with simple things like the website – ensuring that photos of employees not only demonstrate racial diversity but generational diversity as well. Recruiters need to be careful of hidden biases and ensure the language used in job postings contain no hidden codes to exclude any group. 
  2. Training and development. Like their younger counterparts, KAA-Boomers will leave the company if they feel shut out of training opportunities or feel there is little hope for advancement. Training and development opportunities need to be communicated to all employees and seen as being fair to all ages and all levels. Training strategies should also focus on changing attitudes, debunking generational stereotypes and promoting inclusivity – issues that can plague all workforce groups.   
  3. Manager training. Managers often inadvertently display biases. For example, they often request younger workers as hires, seeing them as more likely to stay (false: younger workers job hop about every two years), less likely to get hurt (false: older workers’ experience prevents them from putting themselves in risky situations) and more malleable (maybe: though perhaps “naïve and inexperienced” are more appropriate words). Therefore, managers need training to help eradicate such biases. 
  4. Promotions and new hires. Organizations have to demonstrate their commitment to an age-inclusive workplace by promoting the most qualified and most capable candidates – whether those candidates are 35 or 65. Employees have to see that the best and brightest are being hired – regardless of age. 
  5. Workplace programs. Again, workplace activities must be seen as inclusive. A company family picnic, mentoring programs and lunch ‘n’ learns on juggling parenting and career are great – for the under 40s. Consider adding things of interest to older workers into the mix – retirement planning, elder care and networking meet and greets.  
  6. Encourage key older workers to stay past retirement. Hanging on to older and long-term employees will be vital in the talent-scarce future. Organizations need to find ways to encourage their 50-plus employees to stay on, and to lure retired workers back. Fostering an inclusive culture is a start. Flexible hours, working from home, contract and consultancy work and mentoring opportunities are just some of the ways companies can attract and retain mature talent critical to their success. 
  7. Fair downsizings. In times of business downturns or corporate takeovers, it’s often younger workers who are redeployed, while mature workers are given the stark choice of being laid off, let go or accepting early retirement packages, regardless of their past and present performance. It’s considered easier and less messy to focus on older workers when downsizing. Once again, this sends a powerful message to all employees that older means expendable and less valued. While it’s never easy to lay people off, the process should be thoughtful and businesses should avoid the temptation of taking the easy way out.
Legislation alone won’t eradicate ageism in the workforce.
Organizations play a huge role in creating a fair, inclusive workplace that not attracts, but retains, the talents and skills needed to ensure ongoing growth. And that includes welcoming and embracing workers of all ages.
Barbara Jaworski is the founder and CEO of the Workplace Institute, North America’s leading think tank on baby boomers in the workplace, and author two books on mature workers: KAA-Boom: How to Engage the 50-Plus Worker and Beat the Workforce Crisis; and Rebel Retirement: A KAA-Boomer’s Guide to Living and Creating an Explosive Second Act. Barbara founded the Best Employers Award for 50-Plus Canadians and is recognized as the nation’s leading expert on baby boomers in the workplace.