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An HR Glossary for HR Terms

Glossary of Human Resources Management and Employee Benefit Terms

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Ageism

What Is Ageism?

The definition of ageism is stereotyping, discrimination, or prejudice against individuals or groups based on their age. While any age can be the target of some forms of ageism, the problem is most common for older people, especially in the workplace.

Ageism at work is rooted in persistent myths, misperceptions, and outdated assumptions about older workers. For example, older workers are sometimes assumed to be too difficult to train and unable to keep up with the day-to-day demands of a job. People with ageist beliefs also frequently disregard the value of older workers’ accumulated knowledge and depth of experience.

Is Ageism at Work Against the Law?

Like other forms of discrimination based on race, sex, disability, or other protected classes, age discrimination in the United States is prohibited by federal law, enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older. It does not protect workers under the age of 40, although some states have laws that protect younger workers from age discrimination. 

Dozens of other countries around the world also have laws outlawing age discrimination in employment.

What Kinds of Job Discrimination Does Ageism Cause?

An AARP investigation found illegal discrimination against older workers in three main areas:

  • Recruitment and hiring: Younger applicants are shown favor simply because of their age.

  • On-the-job bias: Older workers receive fewer training opportunities, promotions, and rewards, or are harassed. 

  • Termination: A company “freshens” its workforce or trims its budget by targeting senior employees for layoffs or encouraging them to retire.

How Common Is Ageism at Work?

AARP concluded that ageism is so widespread and accepted in the workplace that they dubbed it “the last acceptable bias.”

Some senior advocates claim ageism is so ingrained into the hiring process that older job applicants may be eliminated from consideration by screening algorithms before they even have a chance to be interviewed. 

Furthermore, age discrimination in employment is not just a problem for people in their 60s, 70s, and beyond. A survey of 3,900 workers 45 and older found nearly two-thirds of them had seen or experienced age discrimination. Additional research shows more than 50 percent of workers over 45 will be pushed out of longtime jobs and 90 percent of them will never earn as much money again.

How to Reduce Ageism in Your Workplace

Eliminating bias against older workers is not only the right thing to do, it’s good for the economy. Research shows ageism in employment cost the U.S. economy 850 billion dollars in 2018 alone. By 2050, that annual figure is projected to climb as high as 3.9 trillion dollars. Most of these losses result from involuntary retirement and other employment-limiting practices that are directly linked to ageism.

Where should your organization begin to tackle this complex and pervasive issue? These strategies from the EEOC will get you off to a good start:

  • Evaluate your organization’s culture, policies and practices to identify ageism.

  • Scrutinize your recruitment practices from stem to stern. Consider such questions as:

    • Are workers of all ages encouraged to apply? 

    • Do job applications ask for age-related info such as graduation dates? 

    • Are recruiters and interviewers trained to avoid words that may suggest age bias, such as “digital native” or “recent graduate”? 

    • Do images on your website and in recruiting materials include older workers?

  • Include age as a key component of your diversity and inclusion programs. For example, offer learning and development opportunities to workers of all ages.

  • Foster a multigenerational culture that focuses on workers’ abilities and rejects age stereotypes about them.

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