Ageism in the workplace is a serious issue that can damage your chance of finding a job or moving up the corporate ladder. Ideally, advancing in age should be considered a beautiful thing, a telling testament of long years of acquiring knowledge and experience. Yet, if a hiring manager passed you by simply because you were too old, or opted to give the promotion you deserved to someone younger, but far less experienced – you, may be an unfortunate victim of this insidious form of discrimination.
Understanding Ageism in the Workplace
According to the United States’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, age discrimination occurs “when an employee or potential employee is given less favorable treatment because of their age.” Like any other form of discrimination, ageism should not happen or exist in the workplace. Often, it is the misconceptions and poorly founded opinions about aging that fuel discrimination by co-workers or superiors. Psychology professor Susan Fiske of Princeton University, after researching the causes and effects of ageism, noted that many of the discriminatory tendencies exhibited in the workplace are based on prescriptive prejudice, that is, beliefs about differences older adults should exhibit when compared to others. Any changes from these beliefs is punished by the discriminators. There are 3 key issues in these stereotypes:
- Succession. The belief that older adults should ‘step aside’ from senior and well-paying jobs to make room for the younger generation.
- Identity. The belief that older people should not try to act younger than they are.
- Consumption. The belief that older people should not consume a large number of limited resources like healthcare.
An ironic characteristic of this kind of discrimination is that it is the one form where the perpetrators will eventually become the targets, a vicious cycle. Ageism is not without other effects either. Such discrimination can wound careers, sometimes irreparably, which inevitably spells harm to the well-being of the people affected. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remain enthusiastic, motivated and focused when the cloud of malice looms over an employee. And when an employee cannot maintain the presence of mind to perform optimally, the quality of service delivery invariably suffers, and the company sees more turnover.
The society at large fares no better either. By early 2019, the median age of the American employee was 42.2 years. Following the current trajectory, in less than 5 years, employees over the age of 55 will make up a quarter of the USA’s workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2024 Labor Force Projections report. With so many millennials turning a blind eye to the obvious benefits of having seasoned employees in the labor force, the rift between young and aging employees will be filled with more time dedicated to re-training and re-mastering what the older employees have been doing for years. Indeed, ageism in the workplace is counterproductive at best, and debilitating at its worst.
Protecting Yourself from Ageism in the Workplace
Given that at least a fifth of those over the age of 40 has experienced ageism in the workplace, what can those who are affected do to protect themselves? If you fall into the bracket of mature workers, implementing one or all of these strategies can go a long way towards sparing you any kind of discrimination, either when job hunting or when trying to progress in your career.
Educate yourself. The sad reality of ageism in the workplace is that much of it goes unreported, not because people would rather let it go, but because they do not know that they have been wronged. It’s impossible to assert your rights if you do not know them! Remember that according to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 1967, it is illegal for employers:
“…to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s age.”
“…to limit, segregate, or classify employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s age.”
Basically, not getting a promotion or a job offer cannot be justified in terms of your age. Likewise, your age can neither be grounds for reductions in payments or benefits. Any manager or employer who takes action against you for defending yourself is breaking the law!
Take action. Should you observe any of the indicators of discrimination based on your age, you should act decisively. In this case, the words of Thomas Cromwell, “Silence gives consent!” ring true. But please follow proper channels of communication in filing a complaint. First, approach your Human Resources department so they can investigate. Then, if need be, you can file a claim with an appropriate state agency or the EEOC. The investigation can either help achieve what you truly deserve out of the job, or provide peace of mind in knowing that another candidate was genuinely better-qualified.
Be proactive. Not to sound like cliché, but prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Have a resume that suggests you have a wealth of experience, without unnecessarily disclosing dates. It is not dishonest to be discreet. Additionally, in interviews, be prepared to express how much longer you are willing to work so that the recruiters think of you as a long-term investment.
You also need to counteract the stereotypical “older people are slow” meme by staying on top of the latest technologies. Having a strong foundation of knowledge and experience as well as being handy with the latest technology makes you that much more valuable to would-be employers. Finally, dismiss any incorrect assumptions that you have unreasonable salary expectations so that potential employers are more open to holding discussions with you.
Remain Positive. Above all else, a positive attitude is key in keeping you fully present and able to present your best self despite your age. Remaining positive includes being confident in your ability, being assured of your relevance to your industry, and remembering that aligning your efforts with your hopes for your career can trump any discrimination thrown at you. Follow these strategies and you can overcome ageism in the workplace!
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