- Carolyne Zinko
Ageism in the Workplace: How Discrimination Against Older Employees Hurts Everyone
In our youth-obsessed American culture, it may come as little surprise that older employees are sometimes viewed as obsolete. For some, changing their outsides is a way to cope, like the Silicon Valley executives who invest in facelifts, Botox, and fillers while still in their 40s. “They don’t want to be seen as less valuable next to their more youthful colleagues,” plastic surgeon Mary Lynn Moran told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Discrimination or prejudice based on a person’s age is called ageism. It’s also illegal, under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. This federal law prohibits employment discrimination against persons 40 years of age or older. Such protections are ever more important — globally, one in six people will be 60 or older by 2030, according to the World Health Organization.
It can be hard to prove ageism, but numbers indicate it happens more than we might think. A 2018 data analysis by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, and ProPublica, an independent media company, found that 56% of workers over 50 are pushed out of their jobs before they’re ready to leave. The analysis looked at the Health and Retirement Study at the University of Michigan, which since 1992 has followed 20,000 people across the nation from the time they turned 50 through the remainder of their lives. More recently, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported receiving 12,965 charges of age discrimination in 2021. That number totaled 21% of all charges of discrimination filed that year.
Age discrimination cost the U.S. economy $850 million in gross domestic product in 2018, according to an AARP study. Consider, too, the cost to collaboration and teamwork when employees hear comments about themselves like, “What a dinosaur,” or “She doesn’t have enough energy for that role.”
We can’t change the age we are. But we can adapt how we think about age, and challenge biases that we hold — or see in others.
“Studies have shown that older workers are highly engaged, with low turnover, and often serve an important role as mentors,” Debra Whitman, AARP’s executive vice president and chief public policy officer, said in a news release about the study. “Their expertise helps businesses and pays big dividends for the economy as a whole. Employers who embrace age diversity will be at an advantage.”
Not everyone got the memo. Tommy Flaim, the founder of Fox and Robin, a Chicago activewear brand, told Inc. magazine he was only joking when he created a TikTok video that began with “POV: you start a new company and only hire Gen Z,” and then showed pictures of informal email sign-offs sent by 20-something workers, such as “Hasta la pasta,” “Talk soon, loser” and “Insert pleasantry here.” Posted in March of 2022, the video has racked up 3.1 million likes.
There’s little that’s funny about ageism, notes Forbes contributor Sheila Callaham in a story on joking about age bias, “In the workplace, excluding a particular group interrupts the safety of belonging. The exclusion of older workers is particularly unsettling given that it impacts everyone and predicts the future work experience for anyone younger.”
Aging is inevitable, but doesn’t have to represent a diminishment of capability or competency.
Look, for example, at Alphy’s profile on activist Betty Reid Soskin, who in her 80s helped plan the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park near San Francisco. At 100, she became the nation’s oldest national park ranger.
And at the other end of the spectrum, consider the accomplishments of Gabby Goodwin, also profiled in Alphy. As a 7-year-old South Carolina elementary school student, Goodwin invented a double-faced snap barrette. She became the CEO of her own company, Confidence by Gabby Goodwin, in 2014. Today, her GaBBy Bows are sold in Target stores nationwide and in 13 countries around the world.
As Alphy’s AI communication coach, Reflect, notes: “Age is a state of mind.”
Carolyne Zinko is Alphy’s Editorial Director. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Connor Wilkins, Abstral Official, Albert Dera, Danie Franco on Unsplash