Ageism at Work | Is Your Workplace Making Space for Older Employees?

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A quick Google search reveals no shortage of articles about managing millennials in the workplace. However, with so much attention on encouraging and training younger employees, older employees are often left out of the conversation. To nurture a truly inclusive workplace, there needs to be greater awareness of how ageism negatively impacts an organization as a whole.

But there are plenty of ways for older employees to participate more in their organizations—and just as many ways for their younger peers to help foster a more inclusive environment.

A growing demographic

The number of senior citizens in the workforce is on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.5% of employees in the U.S. were aged 65 or over in May 2019—up from 17.7% in 2014

There are many reasons for this increase, including longer life expectancies, the need for additional income, and just plain boredom. But this trend begs the question: how prepared are organizations to integrate —or reintegrate—older employees into their fold?

What is age diversity?

When it comes to workplace diversity, the conversation is often focused on gender, race, and sexual orientation. But it’s also critical to acknowledge the role ageism can play in stalling or isolating the trajectories of older employees at the office. An AARP survey reports that two-thirds of employees between the ages 45 and 74 have witnessed or experienced ageism in the workplace.

A big driver for ageism is the bias toward “digital natives”—younger people who have grown up using technology that previous generations did not have access to at such an early age. As a consequence, older employees, who may not expertly navigate social media platforms or new software, are left feeling less relevant at the office.

A focus on age diversity is the clear response to tackling workplace ageism. As the term implies, age diversity means including employees of all ages at the office. But it is not enough to just have a more diverse demographic; workplaces also need to establish an inclusive culture that values the expertise and contributions of older employees. 

Viewing age as an asset

There are many benefits to having older employees:

  • They come to work with ready expertise cultivated from longer work histories and more life experience.
  • Like any other age group, they come to the table with a unique point of view. This can contribute to a more innovative and productive organizational culture.
  • They are typically more loyal to the organizations they join and stay in their positions longer than their younger peers.

Creating an inclusive environment

To take advantage of these benefits, organizations must find ways to leverage and value their older employees. New programs and initiatives should “value wisdom as much as youth.” This can be achieved by:

  • Being open to willing candidates who have long work histories and more experience than what certain jobs may demand. 
  • Requiring all members of a team to share what they are working on at meetings, so that everyone is given a platform to learn and collaborate from one another. 
  • Offering a mutual mentoring program that pairs an older employee with a younger one to encourage intergenerational collaboration.
  • Having regular touchpoint conversations with older employees to make sure they’re able to capitalize on their strengths.

What can older employees do?

Ageism may not always be overt, so it’s important to recognize and call out signs of ageism. If you’re an older employee, don’t be be afraid to:

  • Tap into your network to find out about organizations that support and encourage older employees.  
  • Speak up at meetings and within your team. Share your knowledge, experience, and POV whenever relevant. 
  • Participate in office social events so that you can nurture stronger connections with co-workers.
  • Ask for help when you need it, and be ready to offer help when you can.

Don’t minimize situations in which you’ve identified ageism. Age bias can feel easy to write off, but it presents a major barrier to creating an inclusive, innovative, and productive work environment. If you have witnessed or experienced ageism, inform your manager or human resources department to determine next steps.

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What do you think is the biggest obstacle to age diversity in the workplace? Let us know in the comments below.

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Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and content coach based in New York City. She’s passionate about helping female business owners and creatives become stronger storytellers and advocates of the work they’re doing in the world.
Using a Career Break to Your Advantage Promoting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Comments

    • Charles
    • July 17, 2019
    Reply

    Thank you for your article, Mrs. Kulkarni.
    The hiring spree in corporate America has been focused on millennial professionals. I do not know of any corporations making efforts to maintain age diversity in the workplace. In fact, I have known that in one of the companies I worked for, they dismissed many seasoned professionals (middle-aged) and hired much younger professionals to replace them. The same company has been offering early retirement programs for 50+ professionals who are approaching the 55 years old threshold.
    I am in the 50+ group and am facing difficulties finding a new job. My friends report the same experience. I feel the age discrimination. I am still full of energy and drive to succeed, but I am frustrated with the current job market, despite all the hype.
    How is someone supposed to find and maintain good employment until full retirement age (at 67) in Corporate America in this age of technology/digital divide?

    • Reese
    • July 19, 2019
    Reply

    My view is that this is no different than any other job. people in their sixties now were in the 40’s or younger as computer rose to prevalence. They refused to learn and grow, and being old is no excuse for not knowing the tools of your job. Slowing down the work of others to help people that can’t keep up is counter productive. Refusal to adapt on one part is not the responsibility of the other. I have to work with people every day that somehow fail to remember the most basic information and they write it off as “being old”. No more excuses. If you want to be in the modern work force, modernize. They have had 30-40 years to get on board. Being old now is no excuse for decades of refusal. Just more of the ME generation boomers whining that they are being left behind with skill sets not in demand. Why should any company be required or encouraged to hire people with no aptitude for the job they want?

      • Hal Flantzer
      • August 7, 2019
      Reply

      As someone who is now in his 70’s, and happily employed full-time, with a part time side business as well, I view your statement that “they refused to learn to be blatantly ageist and patently false. Having worked in and consulted with several companies during the ’80’s and ’90’s, as computers became prominent and necessary, I know of no cases of such refusals–and unlike you, I was there. In fact, the opposite was true: employees in my age group were more than willing to embrace and grow with technology for the simple reason that there was MONEY to be made by doing so! Unfortunately, some have had to face bigoted HR types that acted on their biases about more senior employees in that their age and appearances somehow disqualified them from developing technological expertise. False.

      • Hal Flantzer
      • August 7, 2019
      Reply

      Interesting how Reese lumps this age group all together in a blatantly ageist way when “computer [sic] rose to prevalence “. As a person in that age group (now in my 70’s, still happily working full-time and owning a consulting service), I distinctly remember working with my many peers who–just the opposite of Reese’s biased and glib stereotype–embraced technology enthusiastically, and learned whatever platforms, software, hardware, etc. that they needed to–and as quickly as they could. Why? Because of MONEY: they knew that by getting ahead of the curve, they stood to make more than they had previously–and sometimes by a considerable margin. Reese clearly shows his bigotry, and is clueless about the so-called boomer generation of workers.

  1. Reply

    Thank You for an interesting article! I am an Early Childhood Educator still teaching and as you mentioned in your article “ willing to Learn” especially among young professionals who have the technology already in place. Being open minded and sharing what your years of experience can out run any young professional- working together hand in hand a school or a company can profit from having both young and young heart working side by side. I can not tell you how much I have learned from my young teachers that even when we are not teaching we gather together on off days! Social Connection and Social Network is vitally important. Going to interviews with your head up high knowing that you are bringing to any employment your knowledge but your sincere ability to LEARN!

    • Grace Whiting
    • July 20, 2019
    Reply

    Good article, Nisha. Some hiring people forget that age is a protected status, just as much as gender, gender orientation, race, etc. Company culture should embrace diversity, and maybe we need to have training on that and include age and working with multiple generations.
    After a nine month job search I had a great experience, being hired at 59, and felt appreciated for my age and experience. Likewise, I also respected my colleagues, my boss, all much younger, and I hope they agree with me on that. We made a great team and complimented each other.

    • Sue
    • July 21, 2019
    Reply

    Nothing will change until laws concerning age discrimination are rewritten, to be as solid as laws on other forms of diversity, and are enforced! It may even require companies to disclose their proportions of employees in each age bracket and offering some tax incentives to be more equitable in hiring (like incentives to hire veterans or people with disabilities). Right now, there is zero enforcement and people are aging out as early as 40. The worst aspect of this is that companies have lost people with long experience; to do a job requires more than the right education and skills. Understanding economic cycles and recessions, experience with buyouts, mergers, reorganizations and retraining people, changing technology and the elimination of many job categories, are skills you acquire over time. Most of us over 40 have learned to look at the company photos of staff: if there’s one guy (the CEO) who is 40 and the rest are obviously 20-30 somethings, why bother to apply? Will today’s 20 and 30 somethings be happy to be permanently unemployed when they hit 50? Will they have saved enough money for a lifetime by that age? That is what too many have already experienced.

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