Ageism is discrimination against individuals or groups based on their age. When the late Dr. Robert N. Butler coined the term more than 50 years ago, he intended to raise awareness of the blatant denigration of the aging population. Butler, the first to publicize age-related stereotyping, focused his life on changing the negative perceptions society levied against an aging cohort.
Since then, ageism has taken a backseat to more pressing issues—race, color, religion, sex and national origin. For example, when Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended in 1972 to extend protections to job applicants based on the above characteristics, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was not similarly amended. In early 2019, the Seventh Circuit Court leveraged that fact in their ruling against a job applicant claiming disparate impact under the ADEA.
Older employees increasingly report age discrimination, evidenced by high-profile lawsuits like Lilly, Novo Nordisk, IBM and SpaceX, where older workers were allegedly targeted for redundancy or bullied at work to force resignation.
Younger Workers Are Also Impacted by Ageism
While the ADEA was put in place to protect workers age 40 and older from workplace discrimination on the basis of age, many U.S. cities and states model other countries and protect all ages against age bias, bullying and discrimination.
Protecting all ages from age-based stereotypes and discrimination is critical because older employees are not the only individuals targeted because of their age. Younger employees are often asked to work longer hours doing the same work as older colleagues but at a much lower pay scale.
In 2021, a group of first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs publicly disclosed an average 95-hour workweek and threatened to quit unless conditions improved. First-year analysts are typically hired straight out of college.
Indicators of Workplace Ageism
With organizations struggling to retain talent across the age spectrum, here are five indicators that workplace ageism may be disrupting an age-inclusive, age-equitable workplace.
- Annual surveys show that younger or older employees express concerns about equitable treatment.
- HR receives complaints about age-related comments, such as name-calling, remarks about age-based ability or being passed over for development opportunities or promotion because the individual was perceived as too young or old. If HR receives age-related complaints without taking action, the inaction is even more revealing of an ageist culture.
- The recruitment process automatically excludes candidates based on age without consideration for demonstrated skills and abilities.
- Managers regularly and repeatedly ask employees about plans to marry, have a family or retire.
- When required, a reduction in staff only looks at older employees and not all ages combined with future talent requirements and employee capability and past performance.
Five First Steps for Creating Change
Creating a diverse, age-equitable workplace requires ongoing, proactive management. For companies just turning their attention to age equity and inclusion, here are some essential first steps.
- Education is key. Hire age experts who understand the nuances of ageism across the age spectrum to educate all levels of the workplace. Make training a prerequisite for any employee with hiring and management responsibilities.
- Ensure that policies and processes are age-neutral. Conduct a complete age equity audit reviewing internal and external policies, processes and messaging. Is age included in the company’s anti-discrimination and harassment policy? Does your diversity recruiting strategy include age as a dimension of diversity? Does your Equal Employment statement include age?
- Proactively create a diverse, age-inclusive work culture beginning with employee orientation and onboarding. Use that critical time to educate new employees on workplace policies, train them on all aspects of inclusive behaviors and set expectations for a zero-tolerance to any form of bias, stereotyping or discrimination.
- Eliminate internal language that perpetuates ageist stereotypes or generational finger-pointing. For example, generational labels tend to prescribe a trivial set of characteristics according to age. This is misleading and incorrect and can lead to generation-bashing and finger-pointing, creating mistrust, disengagement and talent loss.
- Know your numbers. Measure age demographics in ten year segments, i.e., 18 – 27. Another way to measure age is by birth year, grouped by decade, i.e., 1940 – 1950. If using the latter, the employee will always stay in the same group versus eventually aging into a different group. Just remember, there are a lot of working years after 40!
Once leaders make it clear that employees are valued for their skills, abilities and potential, regardless of age or any other dimension of diversity, then change is more likely to be embraced. What’s even better is that internal reputation is reflected externally. Age-inclusive strategies and results increase reputation internally and externally–including customers and stakeholders–across the age spectrum.