Ageism Never Gets Old: Tackling Age Bias in a Post-COVID Labor Force

When you hear about age discrimination, it usually pertains to an older job candidate not being selected due to their age. The truth is, ageism can potentially affect all ages and points in an employee’s life cycle. As I write this article, I’m reminded that I’m now older than the average employee age in my organization. As I get closer to being in the “older workers” category, this topic hits home for me and my generation, but also, I realize just how much stereotypes on age affect our daily lives. While the law prohibits discrimination in any aspect of employment — “hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, benefits, and any other term or condition of employment,” ageism undoubtedly still occurs. 

Over the past several years there has been public light shed on younger generations increasingly experiencing discrimination in the workforce, oftentimes in subtle ways. Being told you’re “too young” for a promotion or “experience needs to come in the form of years on the job” occurs far too often. At the other end of the spectrum, older generations are depicted as “scared” of new technology or are “counting down the days to retirement.” These are just a few of the harmful myths that plague the workforce, as I’m sure we’ve all heard at least one of these so casually mentioned before. As the job market continues to stumble back post-COVID, tackling ageism is a must. 

What is Ageism? 

Ageism, a term coined in 1969, was first described as “prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the aging process.” Today, ageism is known as discrimination or prejudice based on someone’s age — young or old. This updated understanding shows how ageism affects everyone — as long as stereotypes around age exist.  

While the law is still directed towards protecting older generations with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbidding age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older, some states, like New Jersey, protect workers age 18 and older from being discriminated against for being considered too young. 

Ageism Affects More Than Just Hiring

While hiring decisions is often where most perceive ageism primarily occurs — this article from NY Times suggests that only a handful of lawsuits concerning age discrimination are reported during the hiring process. Consider, for example,  that Millennials are citing instances of age discrimination beyond hiring, and at higher rates than those older than them, according to NY Post. In fact, more than half — 52%— of American workers aged 18 to 34 say they have witnessed or experienced ageism in their jobs, according to Glassdoor’s 2019 Diversity and Inclusion Survey. That’s compared to 39% of workers 55 and older who say the same in an online survey of more than 1,100 American workers.

To put things into perspective, for the first time in our history, there are five generations in the workplace. According to Pew Research, the generations are:

  • Traditionalists—born 1928 to 1945
  • Baby Boomers—born 1946 to 1964
  • Generation X—born 1965 to 1980
  • Millennials—born 1981 to 1996
  • Generation Z—born 1997 to 2021

I’m stating the obvious but that is a wide range of ages. In large companies, it is common to have individuals from each generation represented on the same team. 

In 2019, the median working age was 42.3. In the US, Millennials account for over a third of the US Labor Force. Early last year, I touched on working with Generation Z as their presence will only grow in the coming years. Manpower Group predicted Gen Z would make up 24% of the workforce in 2020, though, many workforce predictions from the past year are undoubtedly skewed given COVID. Additionally, workers age 55+ are expected to make up a quarter of employed U.S. adults by 2026. 

How Ageism Often Goes Unnoticed

Ageism can sometimes be hidden behind things like “culture fit,” which I have touched upon before on my blog. I shared, “Often times, hiring managers will weigh a candidate’s potential fit over talent, credentials and experience — a dangerous tactic that can lead to inadvertent (and sometimes illegal) discrimination based off demographic differences or personality traits.” Some examples of those myths or assumed personality traits might include: 

  • Older workers are just counting the days until retirement.
  • Older workers don’t have today’s technology skills.
  • Older workers won’t report to younger managers.
  • Older workers will only accept high salaries.
  • Older workers aren’t creative or willing to adapt.

On the other hand, for the younger age group, some myths include: 

  • Younger workers are lazy and don’t work enough.
  • Younger workers are too casual.
  • Younger workers don’t have in-person skills.
  • Younger workers aren’t serious enough.
  • Younger workers are entitled and think they know it all.

“Discrimination has common roots in fear of differences,” Dr. Peter Cappelli, an expert in human resources, public policy, and talent management, explains. “Myths persist when we don’t see evidence, and we haven’t had a contradictory experience ourselves.” So, how do these harmful myths translate into discriminatory actions? 

It happens when learning opportunities, like conferences, certifications, or networking events are exclusively offered to younger employees. Or when assumptions are made that you don’t need time off because you don’t have young kids at home which also serves as a factor in why your manager selects you to travel all the time. It can also come into play with promotions when there’s a cap on experience levels or the number of years needed to advance. This isn’t to say that years of experience aren’t important; it’s merely to remember that it’s only one factor — two people can learn dramatically different things in one year. 

What Can Be Done

If you’re heading into an interview — whether as an interviewer or interviewee — check out my previous blog post detailing best interview practices. If, like me, you’re a member of an older generation and you’re looking to update your resume, Indeed has great examples and step-by-step guides

Because I thought that ageism was uncommon, I haven’t been thinking about ageism nearly enough, especially when considering how it can affect people long after the hiring process. As I’m inching closer to not being in the “younger” crowd, I personally will be more proactive in calling out ageism. I hope by sharing this blog that you will do the same.