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Age Discrimination (Ageism) in the Workplace

2022-08-10
Age Discrimination (Ageism) in the Workplace

From "OK Boomer" to "Millennials expect free food and beanbags"... we've all heard heated terms about each generation, including how they perform in the workplace.

Sometimes, this takes the form of lighthearted satire meant to simply take a humorous look at the vast differences between generations. However, in some cases, negative age stereotypes can harmfully affect employment decisions. In such cases, this is classed as age-based discrimination and can be lawfully appealed under the employment act. Here, we'll take an in-depth look into different aspects of ageism in the workplace.

What Is Age Discrimination in the Workplace?

This kind of incident is when an employee or applicant is treated differently because of their age. Ageism is a form of discrimination that can be directed towards people of all ages. However, in terms of legally reporting such issues, discrimination is most commonly recorded against older adults. Ageism illegal in many jurisdictions, and businesses can be fined or sued for engaging in this type of discrimination.

How Does Age Discrimination Occur in the Workplace?

Age discrimination can affect people at any stage of the employment process, from job applicants to experienced workers. Affected areas include promotions, job assignments, and even terminations. Here are some key ways it occurs in the workplace:

  • Younger workers are hired for less pay. Policymakers often put younger workers' wages at very low benchmarks, reportedly as a way to ensure younger workers get an equal chance at securing job opportunities. This has a twofold effect - many older workers are passed over for opportunities due to the lower cost of hiring younger employees. On the other hand, a younger worker would be earning very little in most positions they can attain, subjecting them to financial vulnerability.
  • Making hiring decisions based on appearance. For some companies, the way their employees look is very important to them. Some companies wish to give off a "young vibe", while others prefer a more experienced professional aesthetic. Often, age bias takes precedence over individual merit because of the impression a company believes it will give off by hiring workers of a certain age range.
  • Pre-conceived ideas about young people. Contrary to other statistics, a Harvard Business Review study revealed that younger employees are more likely to experience age discrimination at work than their older coworkers. 1 This is nothing new - since records began, young people have often been characterized as lazy, self-centered, and difficult to manage. However, in the US, younger workers have little to no protection against "reversed" age discrimination.
  • Pre-conceived ideas about older workers. Negative stereotypes about older workers are particularly pervasive in fast-paced organizations, such as startups and the tech industry. This prejudice can prevent an older worker from being considered for on-the-job training or being included in pioneering projects.
  • Different attitudes to co-workers based on age. Many workers experience age discrimination from their colleagues, through attitudes based on pre-conceived ideas about age. This can include instances such as older workers being excluded from social dynamics as well as younger workers being addressed with infantilizing language.

How Does Age Discrimination Affect the Workplace?

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) legally prevents discrimination against workers aged 40 and up.2 However, two out of three workers between ages 45 and 74 say they have seen or experienced age discrimination at work.3 Here are some ways this affects employees and the company as a whole:

  • Mental health. Ageism in the workplace can take many forms, from assumptions about older employees' abilities to outright discrimination against a certain age group. This type of treatment can take a toll on employees' mental health, leading to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and worthlessness.
  • Lack of diversity. The hiring process is rife with ageism, which causes a lack of diversity in the workforce. Age discrimination can take many forms, from overtly refusing to hire someone to subtly making assumptions about a person's abilities. This discrimination can result in a workforce that is not representative of the population as a whole. In addition, it can lead to a loss of talent and experience, as older workers are forced out of the workforce prematurely.
  • Economic implications. According to the world health organization, the negative impact that ageism has on the employment rate of older people costs the economy greatly. One Australian study suggested that if 5% more people aged 55+ were employed, the economy would be saved AUD$48 billion annually.4 This effect on the economy feeds back into how well each business fares, showing that ageism really does come with a cost.
  • Compounds other discriminatory issues. Discrimination in the workplace is, sadly, rife. When ageism is added to the mix, a minority person can become ostracized or targeted in extreme ways. For example, a sexist company may not have inclusive behaviors toward female employees, but older women may be particularly dismissed in situations such as on-the-job training.

Common Age Stereotypes in the Workplace

Age stereotypes are common in the workplace. In many cases, these stereotypes are perpetuated by company policies or practices that favor certain age groups. Here are some examples of these common stereotypes:

  • Younger employees don't respect authority. Due to the constant improvement in children's welfare over time, older people tend to come to the conclusion that young people are spoiled due to a lack of discipline. This can translate to work or education environments as a perceived lack of respect for those in power.
  • Younger employees are not mature enough to take on responsibility. This misconception is based on the idea that maturity requires a significant amount of life experience. It doesn't take into account the value of a good upbringing or education, or alternatively, the way that difficult early life experiences can build maturity in a person.
  • Older workers can't adapt well. Most of us are aware that the mind can lose its capabilities as we age. Many of us see it as an inevitability, which leads to the assumption that an older employee would be unable to pick up on new skills. Some of us even go as far as assuming this means older people are completely incapable of adapting to a changing work environment, so training should only be offered to their younger colleagues. However, recent studies have shown that the act of learning itself can improve an older person's cognitive ability, reducing their "mental age" by decades.5
  • Older people can't use technology. A common misconception about older employees is that they can't use computer software as well as their younger co-workers. However, this form of bias glosses over how diverse people are. Many older people are technology hobbyists, with a deep interest in new developments. Similarly, there are plenty of young folks who focus on other interests and avoid more technologically complicated tasks. The role of a company's human resources department is to understand the differences between job applicants/employees, without simply relying on large, harmful generalizations.

Benefits of Age Diversity in the Workplace

With any type of diversity, there comes an advantage from combining perspectives and talents. Let's take a look at how age diversity benefits a workplace:

  • Innovative solutions. Research shows that when a workplace is staffed by a complete mix of younger and older persons, the variation in useful knowledge can catalyze innovation.6
  • Improved employee turnover rates. Age diversity keeps employee turnover rates low. One study showed that turnover decreased by 4% when the percentage of workers aged 50 or over was 10% higher.7
  • Mentorship. By having a broad age range within the staff, there are more opportunities for mentorship. Often, older workers have a larger pool of life experiences and insight that can be incredibly helpful to their younger co-workers.

How Do You Prove Age Discrimination in the Workplace?

Age discrimination is unfair at best and can be very damaging to an individual's mental health or career. Here are some key steps to take if you feel you have been discriminated against:

  • Be sure you're a member of the protected group. First, it is essential to figure out whether your age group is legally protected against discrimination by national or state laws. Sadly, in the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) only protects those aged 40 and above from ageism in the workplace. However, this is different across the world.
  • Consider the root of the discrimination. In some cases, there may be more at play than ageism. For example, a 50-year-old woman might want to consider whether she was discriminated against because of her gender or her age.
  • Gather evidence about your job performance. In order to prove that unfair action was taken, it is necessary to show data or evidence around the quality of your work or application credentials.
  • Show that unfair action was taken. This could be proof that another co-worker was chosen for promotion despite only working at the company for a few months, or that only younger employees were selected for training.

How Do You Address Age Discrimination in the Workplace?

A company is responsible for ensuring age discrimination becomes a thing of the past, not just for the sake of its staff, but for its own future. Here are some ways anti-discrimination strategies can be implemented:

  • Keep open channels for employees' concerns. In any workplace, it's important that employees feel comfortable coming forward with any concerns they have about discrimination. This can include everything from feeling like they're being treated unfairly because of their age, to witnessing discriminatory behavior directed at others. Unfortunately, many people are reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation. This is why it's important for employers to provide multiple channels for employees to voice their concerns, including an anonymous option.
  • Ensure all concerns are heard. When a concern is raised, employers and HR should ensure that it is engaged with fully as well as investigated promptly and extensively.
  • Create policies for resolving discrimination cases. An appropriate plan should be created to show how action should be taken in such incidences and how employees should be consolidated. This prevents any further bias in the process of responding to such complaints.
  • Take it further. For those dealing with ageism on an individual level, there is plenty of help at hand. First, they can make a complaint to their employer's human resources department. If the issue is not resolved at that level, they can file a claim with a national body such as the EEOC in the US. If all else fails, they can hire a lawyer and pursue legal action. While none of these steps are guaranteed to resolve the problem, they can all help to level the playing field and give employees a fighting chance.

How Can Age Discrimination Be Prevented in the Workplace?

  • Age-blindness in hiring. Any information about characteristics including age should be kept separate from a person's CV whilst screening. Further to this, remote, digital skills assessments can be a great way for a candidate to prove their abilities away from the bias of the human eye.
  • Ensure HR and managers are educated on ageism. Nowadays, there are plenty of resources available to provide compelling facts and advice for organizations. Training should be up-to-date in terms of laws and research so that organizations are best prepared to challenge age stigma.
  • Inclusivity training. Ageism can occur at any level in a company - it can even be directed at superiors. Comprehensive inclusivity training is essential in order for employees to understand prevalent psychological biases and how to work against them. Such training need not be solely directed at ageism but can give employees the knowledge that biases can be undetected and that we are all responsible for retraining our minds to work against prejudice.

Can Age Discrimination Be Solved in the Workplace?

The question of whether prejudice and discrimination will ever be fully solved is a tough one to answer, but there is evidence to show the world is making great progress.

The United States government recently laid out the Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce. This order states that federal employees should be a model of diversity for the rest of the country. The order seeks to address ageism as well as other common forms of discrimination.8

Is Some Age Discrimination Legal?

The answer to this is not simple. As explained throughout this article, in many cases, the law prohibits discrimination based on age.

However, some cases of age discrimination are legally protected, one prominent example being the US presidency. Legally, presidential candidates must be 35 years or over to take the position, even though this law hasn't changed since 1787, when the constitution was written.9 This means that in politics, there appears to be a bias toward older people. In fact, the average US president's age at inauguration during the last century was 62.3 yrs.10 In some cases, age discrimination is as ingrained within the law as it is within public thinking.

Things aren't terrible though - despite there being certain cases like the above, ageism has been very much under scrutiny over recent years and is becoming easier to challenge legally.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Ageism Prevalent in the Workplace?

Sadly, ageism is prevalent in most organizations, across the globe. In the UK, an organization called Stop Ageism, a recent survey revealed that 44% of respondents aged over 50 had experienced ageism in the workplace.11

In the US, the numbers are even more stark. In a recent survey, 82% of recipients aged 50 and over said they had experienced ageism in some form.12

Of course, these figures don't include ageism against young people, sometimes referred to as "reversed ageism". Due to the lack of legal protection in the US, many young people feel reluctant to share their experiences with age-based discrimination. In the UK, one survey revealed that 3/4 of participants had experienced age discrimination for being perceived as "too young".13

Does Age Discrimination Apply to Younger Workers?

By definition, age discrimination can apply to persons of any age, as long as they were treated unfairly because of it. For example, if a 27-year-old was passed over for a training scheme that only recent graduates were accepted into, this could constitute age discrimination. Furthermore, a 39-year-old working with a group of politicians in their late 50s and above could be subjected to patronizing and offhand comments in discussions. This would also constitute discrimination based on age, in a technical sense.

However, legally speaking, things could be different depending on where you live. US federal law only protects those experiencing ageism who are aged 40 plus. On the other hand, since the year 2000, the UK and EU member countries have enacted law protecting all ages from discrimination of this kind.14

At What Age Are Employees Protected against Age Discrimination?

In the US, from 40 upwards. In the UK and the EU, any age is protected as long as they can provide adequate proof. However, legality doesn't necessarily equate to protection. In some cases, it can be very difficult to prove discrimination occurred, and the claimant may have further issues navigating the legal system.

What Are the Working Age Groups?

Currently, the oldest generation still in work is the Baby Boomer generation, commonly referred to as Boomers. This generation was born between 1946 and 1964, however, there is some leeway with these brackets for all generations, depending upon the given source. Next up is generation X, who were born between 1965 and 1980. Millennials arrived on the planet between 1981 and 1996. Now, we have an increasing number of generation Z entering the workforce. This generation was born between 1997 and 2012.15

What Are Types of Ageism?

Just as with all other forms of discrimination, it can happen without intent, or due to deep-rooted cultural misunderstandings. Here are four categories to help you distinguish the different forms of ageism.

  • Personal ageism. This is when an individual has discriminatory attitudes or behaviors that are based on an individual's age. This can be seen in everything from offensive comments or jokes to hiring and promotion decisions.
  • Institutional ageism. This refers to policies or practices that have a negative impact on workers of a certain age group. This might include mandatory retirement policies or a failure to accommodate older workers' needs.
  • Intentional ageism. This form of ageism is deliberate discrimination that is intended to disadvantage older workers.
  • Unintentional ageism. Finally, unintentional ageism refers to unawareness or thoughtlessness that leads to negative consequences for older workers.

While all of these forms of ageism can be harmful, intentional ageism is perhaps the most pernicious, as it represents a conscious effort to drive older workers out of the workforce. Consequently, it is important for all employers to be aware of the potential for ageism in the workplace and to take steps to prevent it from occurring.

1 Waldman, 2020 https://hbr.org/2020/11/am-i-old-enough-to-be-taken-seriously

2 US EEOC, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, https://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/age-discrimination-employment-act-1967

3 Palmer, 2017 https://www.aarp.org/work/age-discrimination/facts-in-the-workplace/

4 WHO, Ageism is a global challenge: UN, 2021, https://www.who.int/news/item/18-03-2021-ageism-is-a-global-challenge-un

5 Leanos et al. 2019, https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/75/6/1155/5519313?login=false

6 Ellwart et al. 2013 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260071699_Managing_knowledge_exchange_and_identification_in_age_diverse_teams

7 Stop Ageism, The Results: Ageism in the workplace survey, 2021, https://www.stopageism.org/lifestyle/the-results-ageism-in-the-workplace-survey/

8 OECD Library,
Promoting an Age-Inclusive Workforce : Living, Learning and Earning Longer, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/15f92878-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/15f92878-en

9 EEOC, EEOC Releases Analysis of Older Workers in the Federal Workforce, 2022, https://www.eeoc.gov/newsroom/eeoc-releases-analysis-older-workers-federal-workforce

10 Healthline, Do We Become Invisible As We Age? https://www.healthline.com/health/ageism-invisibility#1

11 Musaddique, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/uk-workers-age-discrimination-common-workplace-office-young-majority-a8103511.html

12 European Commission, Age Discrimination, Legal protection against age discrimination, https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/combatting-discrimination/age-discrimination_en#:~:text=The%20European%20Union%20has%20since,age%20in%20employment%20and%20occupation.&text=This%20means%20that%3A,n)%20young%2Folder%20person.

13 Beresford Research, Generations defined by name, birth year, and ages in 2022, https://www.beresfordresearch.com/age-range-by-generation/

14 Bomboy, 2016, https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/why-does-a-presidential-candidate-need-to-be-35-years-old-anyway

15 Presidents of the USA, Average Age at Inauguration, https://presidenstory.com/stat_age.php