What Is Ageism?

Ageism is defined as prejudice or discrimination against an individual or group based on their age. While a person or group of any age can experience ageism, the problem is common among those over the age of 40.

Ageism in the workplace is rooted in adamant myths and old-fashioned assumptions about older workers. For instance, some assume older workers are too difficult to train or not capable of keeping up with the daily demands of the job. Those who possess ageist beliefs also often disregard the value of older workers’ depth of knowledge and experience.

Ageism at Work: Is It Against the Law?

Like other forms of discrimination, age discrimination in the United States is prohibited by federal law. This is because workers of a certain age are considered to be part of a protected class. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which is enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), forbids discrimination against those who are over the age of 40.

Note that there is no federal law in the United States protecting employees under 40. However, there are laws in Maryland and other states that protect against age discrimination for young workers.

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Examples of Ageism in the Workplace

Studies show that age discrimination is a significant barrier to finding a job after age 50. In other cases, it can make it difficult for people to experience growth in their positions or engage with others at work. Some common ageism examples include:

Unfortunately, age discrimination in the workplace can have significant negative effects on employees, sometimes making them feel ignored or embarrassed.

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How Common Is Ageism at Work?

AARP’s VP of Financial Resilience Programming, Carly Rosckowski, stated that ageism is so widespread and accepted in the workplace that it has been dubbed “the last acceptable bias.

It’s important to note that employment age discrimination is not just an issue for people over the age of 50. In an AARP survey, 64% of workers aged 40 and older reported seeing or experiencing examples of ageism in the workplace.

48% of workers surveyed have experienced age discrimination since turning 40. 27% of workers over the age of 40 say an employer declined to hire them for a job because of their age. 53% of participants in the same age range reported being asked by an employer to provide age-related information on an application or during an interview.

The Impact of Age Discrimination

Age discrimination has drawbacks for both businesses and their employees. When hiring managers don’t consider older candidates for positions, they inadvertently narrow the talent pool and may miss out on someone with the knowledge they’re looking for.

Likewise, workplaces in which ageism is allowed to flourish may push older workers to leave or retire early and miss out on the value of their experience, deep industry knowledge, and highly developed skill sets.

Workers who are treated negatively at work due to their age may experience more stress, which can lead to feelings of burnout as well as higher healthcare premiums.

Additionally, 25% of workers over the age of 40 and 23% of workers over the age of 50 reported leaving a job because they did not feel appreciated by their coworkers or management. Consequently, ageism can cause employees to become disengaged and ultimately impact their ability to stay in their current positions.

How to Prevent Ageism in the 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:

Audit Your Policies and Practices

Look over your organization’s policies and practices to determine whether they unintentionally promote ageism in the workplace. For example, you may reconsider how you structure or promote early retirement packages, offer skill development and training opportunities, or create policies around selecting employees for promotion opportunities.

Audit Your Recruitment Practices

Look closely at your recruitment practices and consider whether they contain hints of ageism. Your language in job descriptions may cap the number of years of work experience or encourage applicants to use a school email address. Your hiring manager may ask for graduation dates on a resume or in the interview.

What about using words like “digital native” or “recent graduate,” which can be evidence of age bias? Even the images you use on your website or recruiting materials should show people of a range of ages.

Consider Diversity and Inclusion Programs

86% of workers over the age of 40 and 76% of workers aged 50+ actively seek opportunities to learn something new at work. Make sure age is a key component of your diversity and inclusion efforts.

Including age in DEI may look like offering an age-focused employee resource group (ERG) to serve the needs and interests of those over 40. You may also consider offering learning and development opportunities to workers of all ages.

Consider Your Culture

Foster a multigenerational culture that focuses on workers’ abilities and qualifications and does not center around stereotypes about any age group. Ensure that you are training your managerial staff on how to spot and respond to evidence of ageism in the workplace.

Additionally, consider the way you recognize and reward employees and ensure that this system is fair to workers of all ages.

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