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Ageism In The Workplace

We all know it happens in most, if not all industries in some way or form. The tech industry seems to shoulder a lot of the blame these days, but let's be honest, it happens everywhere.

What I find most interesting, is that we seem to be afraid to call it out, or even have conversations about it – ageism in the workplace.

What Prompted Me to Write This Blog Post?

I attended a symposium at the UC Berkeley School of Law called "ADEA at 50." ADEA is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and it turns 50 this year (enacted in 1967).

The law is not only about preventing discrimination, it's also to promote hiring workers based on ability (ageism works both ways – younger workers can face discrimination as well), rather than age.

I left the symposium with lots of questions and thoughts:

? Why don't we take advantage of the knowledge, skills, and abilities that older workers have developed over the years? Institutional knowledge is one of those areas that is hard to quantify, but we know there is a high cost to organizations when it walks out the door.

? Why don't we use older, more experienced workers for leadership coaching and mentor programs?

There is a major leadership gap in organizations today because most new, and inexperienced leaders are typically "knighted" into positions of leadership, instead of being developed. Imagine having experienced role models to help new leaders grow into these critical roles.

? How can we get people to change their mindset about the value that older workers bring to


? Why have we not evolved to the point that we appreciate everyone for the talent they bring to organizations, as opposed to creating an environment of fear and shame.

? Why don't people see their "future-selves" (as an older worker) and stop this discriminatory practice?

The Reality

Ashton Applewhite, author of the book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, opens her 2017 Ted Talk with the question: "What's one thing that every person in this room is going to become? Older."

Ashton goes on to say, "and most of us are scared stiff at the prospect."

Link to Ashton's TedTalk:

Ageing is the great equalizer. It doesn't discriminate, and it's part of the natural progression of life (with any luck). Yet, the stereotypes and discrimination run rampant in our society and the workplace.

In the context of the workplace, there are a lot of reasons to be concerned. Every day, older workers can face many different types of discriminatory practices, and it can show up in subtle, and not so subtle ways.

Recognizing Ageism in The Workplace

Discrimination based on age seems to be both random, as well as a moving target. For some organizations, it's the "unwritten" rule of not hiring anybody over 30 years old aka "digital native" (yes, there is a whole language subculture that exists in this discriminatory world). I've heard some say that 38 is the top age they will hire.

For the life of me, I don't understand these arbitrary numbers. The idea that a few years in either direction has some measured impact on the ability age brings, or lacks seems crazy, yet it happens.

Fake It Till You Make It

The stories are out there. People (both male and female) are doing their best to trick the "system" (i.e., applicant tracking systems that screen out resumes with X number of years' experience), as well as recruiters and hiring managers.

"Fudging" dates on resumes, covering up grey hair and wrinkles, using anti-aging lotions and potions -- all to make it appear that we are something less than (or maybe more than) we really are age-wise.

Organizations are making it difficult for people to show up as their genuine selves, ready, willing, and able to contribute -- if you can’t get past the gatekeepers.

Reality Shift

On average, we are living longer, and that changes a lot about the reality about work and careers. The London-based Centre for Better Ageing points out, "As life expectancy continues to rise and more people are living to 90 years old and beyond, careers and employment patterns are changing."

Some people want to retire at the "standard" retirement age, and others want to keep on working. The "old" retirement rules (pun intended) have changed, and some countries are asking if retirement age should be changed because we are living longer healthier lives.

Common Myths and Facts

AARP was the sponsor of the ADEA symposium, and I found a very interesting handout called "Five smart reasons to hire 50+." They debunk, as well as cite research on a lot of the more prevalent perceptions about older workers:

But Wait, There’s More Myth Debunking

Commitment and Motivation

From a commitment perspective, several studies found that "65% of employees age 55+ in large companies are engaged, compared to 58-60% of employees under age 55.

Motivation-wise 81% of workers age 55+ are "motivated" compared to 77% of workers 25-54. All of this leads to higher profitability and less absenteeism. I don't know any organization that doesn't value these attributes.

Some Simple Economics

Consider the cost of attrition, and replacing employees. Studies show that the direct cost (hard dollars) is 1.5 – 3 times (on average) the salary of the person who leaves an organization.

The fully loaded cost includes recruiting, on-boarding, training, etc. Add in the cost of losing institutional knowledge (harder to quantify), and the overall cost of losing employees can go even higher.

If it’s more difficult for older workers to find, and keep a job, the economic impact spreads out even further. It’s simple math to understand that less income equals less discretionary spending, so companies are losing healthy streams of revenue when people can’t work when they want, or need to.

So What Do WE Do About It?

Now that I've been exposed to the facts, figures, and stories about ageism in the workplace, I'm committed to doing my part to change the thinking and practice.

Start Talking

Collectively, we can start conversations about it. We can call out ageism anywhere we see it and experience it. We can help organizations understand and appreciate the value that experience brings to culture, performance and the bottom line.

Education and Awareness

I'm in the process of designing employee development and leadership programs that will help organizations appreciate the value that experienced workers bring, and start to turn around discriminatory stereotypes, practices and cultures.

I have faith that awareness, coupled with a bit of education about the topic will start to turn this around, and we can lift ageism up, and out of organizational life – and life overall.

I would love to hear your thoughts, experience, and ideas to change ageism in the workplace. This is big, and it’s going to take an army of change makers to turn this around!