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Even the staunchest defenders of equality will discriminate against older workers

April 17, 2021
Diversity & Inclusion

With the Age Discrimination in Employment Act coming into force back in 1967, the notion of age discrimination has a long history. Unfortunately, it’s an issue that we still grapple with today, and whereas it’s easy to assume it’s only a problem for those in and around retirement age, a survey from Senior Living suggests it can kick in as early as our 40s.

The study finds that around one in five workers over 40 have experienced age-related discrimination in some way at work, with this rising to 24% of those over 60 years of age. This wasn’t confined to explicit discrimination, as jokes and harassment related to age were also sadly commonplace.

The scale of the challenge was emphasized by a recent study from Yale School of Public Health, which estimated that the cost of ageism could reach up to $63 billion, just in terms of health costs in the United States alone.

Ageism at work
Research from the University of Kent highlights the impact ageism has in the workplace too. They found that the performance of older workers is affected by the stereotypes they encounter in the workplace, whether those stereotypes are merely perceived, or indeed even situations that remind them of stereotyping in their past.

“The harmful effects of ageism in the workplace are not a short-term problem either but can rather harm our mental health over a prolonged period of time,” says Doug Drysdale, CEO of mental healthcare company Cybin. “Age discrimination can lead to a cascade of harmful consequences, including financial strain and depression, that can last far beyond the direct incidence itself.”

They discovered that this negative impact was particularly pronounced when the threat was induced by stereotypes rather than by facts. This stereotyping might be most harmful of all when it arrives via people who ordinarily are vocal opponents of discrimination.

This unlikely scenario was described in a new paper by Stanford University, which showed that people who are keen supporters of both gender and racial equality at work might actually be more likely to discriminate based on age than their peers.

An easy target
Older people are often an easy target for discrimination at work. Mark Zuckerberg famously said that “younger people are just smarter”, while Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla suggested that “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas”. That such opinions garnered such little criticism highlights how “acceptable” it is to discriminate against older people.

The researchers note that ageism is almost condoned in American culture as people don’t really regard it as an ‘ism’ at all, and certainly not on a par with sexism or racism.

The researchers conducted a number of studies to explore this further. A key component of each of the studies was an attempt to measure the “egalitarian advocacy” level within each participant. This involved a scale designed to gauge the agreement with statements like “I feel angry when I think about the injustices and inequality in society” by each participant.

An acceptable bias
The results reveal that people who tended to score highly on this scale also tended to be more disapproving of things such as sexism and racism. However, they were also more likely to endorse succession-based ageism, which is the notion that older people have a moral duty to step aside to allow younger people access to jobs.

A follow-up study then presented participants with a scenario involving a company that was investing millions of dollars in diversity improvement measures, with the investment spread across a range of minority groups. The volunteers were asked how they would distribute the funding, and the results showed that those of a more egalitarian mindset would push most money towards helping racial minorities and women, with relatively little to helping older people. It emerged that this was largely because older people are actually a barrier to progress for women and racial minorities.

As with so many biases, this was one predominantly formed due to ignorance, and the researchers found that when people were told the true nature of the economic difficulties older people face then this helped to shift their mindset, especially among those with an egalitarian mindset.

An organizational response
Of course, given the profound demographic changes so many societies are currently undergoing, it’s vital that organizations do all they can to be age-friendly. A recent paper from Mercer provides a salient reminder of the importance of being ‘age ready’.

“With labor force size, participation rate, and productivity so closely tied to business and economic growth, the experienced workforce is a source of talent and competitive advantage that employers need to embrace now,” the authors say. “To be ‘age-ready’, however, requires a thoughtful and careful analysis of this workforce segment as well as a change in mindset as to how experienced workers truly add value to organizations.”

The report highlights the numerous ways experienced workers bring tremendous value to the workplace, with these virtues often sitting beyond traditional performance management metrics. These benefits include:

  • Being lower cost due to the lower likelihood of them leaving the business
  • Their influence in helping to retain, develop and engage more junior employees
  • Their impact on group productivity via their increased knowledge sharing
  • Their ability to foster collaboration, cohesion, and resiliency within the group
  • Their support for innovation and strengthening customer connections

To help organizations become ‘age ready’, the report concludes with 10 steps they can take to better capitalize on their experienced workforce. It’s not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to get things started.

  1. Collect and analyze your age-profile data to explore demographic and skills pinch points.
  2. Develop and implement people and career strategies that embrace the experienced workforce.
  3. Understand what impact your organization’s retirement plan design has on the trajectory of retirement readiness and labor flow.
  4. Initiate conversations with experienced employees about how they might work differently.
  5. Examine and tackle how ageism might manifest in your organization — analyzing pay, bonuses, performance, promotion, and recruitment statistics through a lens focused on aging.
  6. Develop a lifelong learning attitude that positions people to embrace jobs of the future.
  7. Measure productivity levels across different age and position cohorts in your organization.
  8. Implement an effective flexible-working strategy.
  9. Develop and implement a program offering support for those who have caregiver responsibilities.
  10. Create and sustain an inclusive culture that supports and enables your experienced-worker strategy.

by Adi Gaskell


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