“Congratulations on completing xx years with us. We deeply value your contribution and wish you many more years of success at our organization.”
A congratulatory email from the management on each work anniversary. A communication most cherished…
Until you get a feeler of an invisible P.S. (Applicable until you hit the 40s) in the coming days, months, or years.
Once you turn 40, the alarm goes off. If you are approaching 50, it’s calamitous.
Snide remarks on age, doubts about your ability to execute projects, the most targeted choice for layoff—you pay for the ‘crime’ of aging. Ironically, judged by mortals as much susceptible to aging.
Age-based discrimination is a rampant issue at the workplace globally.
According to Zippia, an online recruitment service provider, the numbers fly on the face of workforce diversity. Data aggregated from credible sources shows that ageism remains prevalent in the workplace.
- Nearly 205,000 workers in the US filed ageism-related claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)from 2010 to 2017.
- In 2021, approximately 12,965 age discrimination charges were filed.
- Among industries, the tech sector was notorious, with nearly 70% of older workers reporting age-based discrimination.
- While more than 65% of workers in the 40-65 age group intend to continue working beyond 66 years, older workers are offered jobs 40% less frequently than younger candidates with similar skills.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of the labor force in the US was 41.7 in 2021; it is expected to go up to 42.6 in 2031.
As per a report by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), cited by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), workers aging 50 and above represent nearly 38% of the workforce. Despite the strong representation, surveys show that in corporate America, 3 out of 5 older workers have faced age-related bias in the workplace.
What fuels the workplace bias?
Workplace bias stems from uninformed opinions and baseless prejudices. Inaccurate opinion and/or negative perception of aging and ability give way to stereotyping. It is simply assumed that people above 50 will be difficult to manage; inflexible and resistant to change; averse to technology; and minimally creative.
It is assumed that younger people will have higher intelligence, will be more tech-savvy, and have greater agility and energy.
Perpetration at workplace
Age-related discrimination takes several forms:
- Preference for younger candidates in hiring and recruitment on the grounds of being age or culture fit; this would include using words like “energetic” or “fresh” in hiring
- Learning & development programs, including training, designed for younger workers, while ignoring senior workers
- Keeping older employees out of new projects or programs at the workplace
- Preferring younger workers over older workers for raises and promotions, factoring in age, not performance
- Targeting older workers when firing or laying off workforce as part of organizational restructuring; filling their positions with younger workers for a lesser package
- Passing or encouraging snarky remarks, jibes, and jokes on age or ability of older workers
Cost of ageism
Age-based discrimination comes at a high price, for the individual and for the organization.
Being discriminated against, especially for something that is not in your control, is among the worst attacks on one’s psychology.
It leaves the individual confused, besides feeling humiliated. This affects both mental and physical health. Self-doubt is a blow to confidence and self-image. Moreover, if ageism is related to loss of job, it creates financial insecurity.
This can lead to isolation and loneliness, and affect the overall quality of life.
Sometimes, it can lead to depression. Data shows that ageism is the factor behind nearly 6 million depression cases globally.
The cost to companies is as high.
Ageism leads to loss of talent, expertise, and experience that could be tapped for the benefit of the organization. The cost of ageist beliefs and actions to the US economy was estimated at $850 billion in 2018.
There are monetary costs as well for employers. According to estimates, recovery in ageism-related lawsuits since 1967 stands at over $91 million. Also, age discrimination-related lawsuits have been highly expensive, costing $2.85—250 million.
Treating older workers well also makes business sense. According to a report by VISA Business and Economic Insights, consumers aging 50 and above account for over 50% of spending in the US. Their contribution to growth in spending over the past decade supersedes that of any other generation, including the millennials. Therefore, given the resources they have, this segment is more inclined to do business with organizations.
Why is it unjustifiable?
There are two things to note. One, of course, is that physiologically, a 25-year-old will differ from a 50-year-old. That is a given with age.
But this is where it becomes interesting.
What about when comparing a 25-year-old with a 35-year-old? Technically speaking, the second group is older too! So, should it also be left out from say critical training processes or projects, assuming that the 10-year age gap will come in the way of gaining the required skills?
The question then is how are we defining aging? What divides the so-called ‘younger’ from the ‘not so younger’ or ‘older’?
Having some meaningless criteria to eliminate an age group, just based on perceptions, does not sound convincing or fair.
Aging workers may be a highly suitable fit otherwise.
What does the older workforce bring?
To put it succinctly, this group is an “asset”. Older workers are mature, reliable, have high work ethics; are self-sufficient, socially connected and networked, and curious; and can survive in the corporate setup, given their years of experience.
Some of them also bring insights that can help in guiding the younger employees.
They bring a different perspective. According to research by Forbes, diversity of age is crucial to improving the performance of an organization, besides improving productivity.
Data show that loyalty is higher among aging workers. As per the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 45–54-year-old employees stay at the job twice as long as 25–34-year-olds. Also, they are more compliant with following instructions, ready to undergo training, and more in sync with the values of the company, having spent a much longer time at the organization.
Challenging road ahead
Tackling ageism is not easy. It is difficult because what we are looking at is a mindset, belief, and opinions that cannot be changed overnight. Also, there are different angles to it.
Ageism differs across industries. It is more prominent in some sectors, such as business & finance, technology, hospitality, marketing & advertising, retail, healthcare and energy. Within industries, too, it is more visible in certain operations, such as sales.
Gender complicates it further.
It only gets worse for women in their middle age. They face gendered ageism. Forbes reports women are the primary victims of ageism, and driven out of the workplace earlier than men.
The reason is the same: stereotypical understanding of women and their roles, whether it is caregiving responsibilities, where parents replace children, or energy levels, or appearance. Employers just assume that after a certain phase, their energy levels will decline, just as their physical appearance fades. This is especially seen in sales roles, where discrimination against older women is high.
Senior women feel the sting particularly when not considered fit hiring, or laid off on a similar ground. In either case, older women find it a lot hard to find their way back.
So, if it is more rampant for women, what about the impact on non-binary genders? How does ageism play out there? What are the additional issues it could create for people belonging to these communities?
What about people from under-represented communities, or people of color?
With each question, a layer gets added. Penetrating through these layers to come out with a winning answer, if not impossible, is certainly difficult as of now.
What must the leadership do to address ageism at the workplace?
The twists and turns notwithstanding, to address the problem, organizations and leadership need to start somewhere. The first step in the ladder is to:
Acknowledge the problem: Calling attention is the first call to action. Only when we are clear that a problem exists, we can work to address it.
The other side of the coin is to investigate the topic. As a leader, understand the mindset of the surrounding people. We all come with certain convictions and follow a line of thought. The more we introspect and question thought patterns, the better we can challenge backward thinking.
Build a strong infrastructure of policies and practices: To root out ageism, conversations are a good start, but not enough. You must have policy regulations to encourage right practices and serve as a deterrent to discriminatory behavior. Policies send out a message to employees.
Have a detailed framework around implementing the policy. This starts with informing everyone in the company, including the new employees, about anti-ageism or anti-discrimination policy. You can work with your HR leadership to prepare a thorough onboarding package, including manuals, to apprise the new joiner of the zero-tolerance for ageism policy.
Circulate the policy to people across the organization. To sensitize the workforce toward dignified conversation, inform them about words/phrases that are derogatory and hence should not be used, for instance, addressing a senior lady as “young lady”. People may converse and crack jokes unintentionally, but, given that judging intention is tricky, it is best to tread carefully.
When deciding on ergonomics, make sure you keep the comfort of the older workforce in mind too. The seating arrangements, or the office heating/cooling arrangements, washroom facilities, pantry, log-off zones where people relax can be done factoring in the preferences of all age groups. This will send out a powerful message that you, as a leader, treat everyone equally.
Hiring: Some things you could watch out for are:
- Where are you placing advertisements, such as online job portals or community newspapers? Is it a medium that every person, irrespective of their age, can access, or does it favor one group over the other?
- Is there any discriminatory language in the regular job descriptions, such as young candidates, or does it cap the limit of experience to a few years only to rule out those with bigger tenures?
- Is hiring focused on skills and qualifications? Do you have the checks and balances to ensure candidates are not ruled out randomly because of biases?
- Are the right questions asked during the interview, such as around the value they can bring? Is evaluation conducted by enough people to rule out any biased selection or rejection? Do you follow the latest industry best practices?
(This should be the normal pattern for any regular hiring. Of course, when you are looking for hiring at a fresher role or for a very junior position, tweak things a little. This is just as you would if you were looking to hire for a senior position with experience a key criterion. The aim is to tread cautiously and apply judicious thinking to avoid any stereotyping).
Training & development
- Devise diversity and inclusion-focused training sessions and learning programs to create awareness among people against ageism.
- Make participation mandatory for all in the organization, from the topmost to the junior-most employees.
- Ensure training sessions/webinars, etc. are conducted year-round.
Reward and remuneration/growth & performance
- Assess if promotions/rewards are fair. Rewards and recognition should be strictly merit-based. Make sure benefits are given because of value to the company, not age. Follow a strict policy to ensure zero discrimination.
- Don’t assume that just because a senior worker may approach retirement, the person may not be interested in a promotion or raise. Everyone likes to be valued. Talk to them to understand how they would like to be valued.
- While manning for projects or assignments, try to keep the composition of the team multigenerational, as far as possible. This will help in tapping the combined bigger pool of expertise.
- Likewise, growth and performance assessment should also be based on merit. Not that we should not encourage the younger crowd, if required, by side-stepping from the track a little. However, no encouragement should be at the cost of another person’s identity or dignity.
- This is a very sensitive subject. Broach it wisely. If retrenchment is a necessity, decide based on value, not age or gender.
- Communicating layoff is a tough conversation. Approach it with prudence and sensitivity. Convey in a dignified language, respecting the value the person may have added to your organization. Explain clearly and honestly the pretext for the layoff. People value integrity.
- An effective redress machinery is a must. You could have dedicated teams or committees with members spanning generations and cutting across gender lines to address any complaints, with clear guidelines to operate.
- Ensure quick resolution of issues.
- Have a follow-up mechanism to collect feedback. Based on this, you could draw actionable insights for better functioning.
Empower the older workers: Training programs and sessions are huge levelers. Provide equal opportunity to everyone to facilitate non-partisan growth. Ensure the training programs cater to the requirements of professionals across generations in the organization, and are not skewed towards the interests of the younger workers only.
Design training programs aimed at the growth of the older workers, such as leadership or skill-based, or in areas where they need support, such as technology-related. You could also provide them access to conferences, or webinars, which will augment the experience they bring.
Visit the roles and responsibilities of the senior workers to see if you can revise these or update to meet new requirements. Appoint the senior workers at key positions in new projects and initiatives. Given the experience they have, this will not just energize them, but also add value to the initiatives.
Solicit their views and opinions during meetings or discussions. If required, talk to them otherwise, too, to understand their views. Take their suggestions for improving operations in their area of expertise.
Stress on the need to speak up against biases or discriminatory behavior fearlessly. Encourage them to come up with issues, either to you or to their reporting managers.
Design benefit packages keeping their interest in mind. Whether it is term insurance plans or healthcare benefits or leave-related policies, customize it to suit the requirements of this group.
Promote a forward-thinking approach: Promote progressive thinking by educating yourself and others around you.
Grow your understanding of how ageism operates. Hold conversations with as many people around you, read, leverage all mediums of information, including social media, listen to podcasts.
Disseminate the knowledge or information for better and wider impact. Circulate the resources at your disposal to spread awareness across the organization. Ensure people have access to these.
Talk to your management team; understand the mindset they operate from. If you notice something you don’t like, approach it judiciously. Sensitize them so that they are watchful of their conduct in day-to-day dealings.
Connect with people across your organization, cutting across levels. Veer your conversations towards creating a culture of respect and zero tolerance for discrimination, be it around age, gender or any other identity. Let them know that light-hearted jokes, or occasional ‘funny’ remarks that may seem inconsequential, could be very damaging to someone else. Spread the message that discrimination, such as ageism, is not normal and it cannot be tolerated at any cost.
Line managers are probably the most important group to percolate vision down to the last employee. At the center of the reporting dynamics, they are the biggest influencers of trends and practices. Sensitizing them to treat older workers with respect and fairly, is half the battle won. Speak to them about accountability and ownership in ensuring the growth of every reportee, irrespective of age or whatever group identity.
Lead by example: People are inclined to mirror their leaders.
Be vigilant at all times to check anything unpleasant before it cascades into a major issue. If you see someone pass a snarky remark, step in to speak for that person.
You could do this in different ways: talk to the person committing the aggression or displaying bias, or interrupt as soon as you notice, depending on how you would like to proceed.
The important thing is to check the behavior. When people in your organization see you take a morally upright stand, they will become more careful of their conduct, and may even speak up for their colleagues or juniors.
Ageism at the workplace is real.
Until sometime back, it would have been okay to believe that the world was getting younger.
As life span increases and fertility rates decline, the aging population is growing. The strength of workers 50 and above at organizations is rising, and will continue to grow.
In tandem with this trend, ageism is also increasing at the workplace. This is presenting a key demographic challenge for employers looking to build a diverse and inclusive culture.
To address it, organizations need to devise apt roles and responsibilities for older workers. Employers must be mindful of how they perceive and treat them. This is crucial because older workers are constantly pitted against the younger crowd, typically Gen Z, who have a different approach to work.
Every generation brings with itself unique skills and approach. To operate successfully, an organization needs to leverage each set of expertise.
That said, it is not easy to change mindsets because these originate from a labyrinth of social setup, experience, education and perception, convictions, etc. Also, conceptualizing a perfect workplace with zero bias is utopian thinking.
You need to be realistic about what can be achieved. Take a tough stand about treating every individual with respect, irrespective of their age. The rest will follow with concerted efforts.
Occasionally, we will do well to remember that those who are in their 50s today probably started their careers in their 20s; those who are in their 20s today will be in their 50s someday…
Time and tide wait for none.