We don’t talk about ageism, no, no, no!

Image showing multigenerational team mixture at work these days to help reinforce the ageism message.

Ageism. It’s everywhere! It is highly likely that ageism is happening right under your nose, and damaging your organisation. Isn’t it time we talk about age — the forgotten diversity characteristic — and the effect it has on the workforce?

Tune into Catherine Nicholson discuss this important topic or read the full blog below.

Ageism in the workforce: the current situation

While we’ve made huge progress in the workplace towards being more inclusive in terms of race, ethnicity or gender — age seems to have been left behind. In fact, only 8% of companies address ageism in their DEI policy. And a 2023 survey by Harvard Business Review found that while 70% of organisations have diversity programs addressing gender and race, only 30% have specific initiatives aimed at age diversity.

In fact, ageism is subconsciously weaved into workplaces — and I’ll bet it’s part of yours too. It’s probably happening right under your nose — but many of us simply aren’t aware of it. Research shows that 95% of workers in their fifties who have noticed age discrimination see it as a common occurrence in the workplace. 

If you’re one of the lucky few who have carried on blissfully unaware of the rising issue of ageism in workplace discrimination, it might mean that you sit comfortably between the two poles of the age spectrum. Research shows that it is the youngest and oldest workers who are most likely to experience age-based discrimination.

What is ageism?

According to the WHO — ageism refers to the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination towards others (or ourselves) based on age. It effects workers of all ages, but more commonly impacts those at the poles of the spectrum — the oldest and youngest workers. Ageism is also a intersectional issue, disproportionately effecting women and those of ethnic minorities. To quote a recent BBC article — ‘being old and a woman is a double whammy’.

And while the equality act protects workers from age discrimination in all aspects of their employment — it does little to scratch the surface of the deeply embedded systems that discriminate on age.

Although ageist behaviour might be more obvious when it takes a ‘hard form’ (obvious age-ist behaviours such as dismissals based on age) — it’s is most commonly experienced as ‘soft age discrimination’. These are subversive and often subconscious behaviours like a barbed joke or comment, which are harder to pin down, and are by no means illegal. Yet, the effects are just as damaging.

It is a hard pill to swallow — yet we’ve got to recognise it:

Ageism is happening right under our noses — and it’s time we talk about it.

Why now?

Surely this is a conversation that should have taken place years ago — so why now? What’s changed? In my opinion, it’s now more important than ever to begin the conversation about ageism in the workplace because of three main factors.

  1. Demographics — characteristics of the workplace are shifting dramatically. Numbers of older workers are at a higher level than ever before, while younger employees are flooding into the workplace. Gen Z is predicted to make up 27% of the workforce by next year, and 150 million jobs worldwide will shift to workers aged over 55 by 2030. Our workplaces house more generational diversity than ever before.
  2. Generational differences are becoming more stark — Generations have experienced such seismic changes in the conditions they have grown up around, that it has shaped the way they learn and experience work like never before. When we consider that in 1998 only 10% of British households had access to internet, in just two decades we have experienced such a rate of change, that the differences between generations are more pronounced than ever before.
  3. Gen Z — The newest generation entering the workplace are becoming a prominent presence, and they are unafraid to have their voices heard. Characterised by their fearless attitude to speak up about issues that matter to them, and their vocal and principled stance, they have forced employers to recognise the need to respond and adapt to the needs of different generations.

In numerous conversations that I have had with organisations it has become apparent that generational diversity has started to become a hot topic of conversation. As workplaces realise this is something that they have to address, rather than ignore, ageism is inadvertently drawn in to the conversation.

Why aren’t we noticing it?

It seems shocking to me that workplaces are so progressive in terms of other forms of diversity, yet we still find it completely acceptable to discriminate against others based on their age. Yet on reflection — it’s really not that surprising at all. Of course organisations are ageist — the practice is so normalised within society that for most, it’s hard to even recognise we are doing it. When we consider that we think nothing of dismissing the opinions of a younger person, or the fact that there is a $37 billion anti-ageing industry that profits off our age-related insecurities, it actually makes sense that this has bled in to our offices and workplaces. Ultimately, the problem comes down to a lack of awareness — organisations are blind to the ageist behaviours that are happening right under their noses. Ageism is one of the last socially acceptable prejudices — and the harsh fact is — we are all complicit. It runs through the very core of our offices — from the hiring process, to the training you receive and the opportunities you are afforded. It is so deeply embedded in the structure of the workplace it can now be defined as systemic, or institutional, ageism. It’s time we start talking.

Common forms of ageism in the workplace

Ageism in the workplace starts from the very beginning — before a job applicant even enters the office. It repeats itself throughout an employees working lifecycle. From hiring to retirement, ageism in the workplace is an unspoken barrier to development, opportunities, wellbeing, and health.

Hiring process — 4 in 10 hiring mangers say they would be less inclined to consider an applicant who has an elderly appearance, while 36% suggest candidates over 60 try to appear younger during the interview process. In fact, hiring managers are most comfortable hiring people in their own age range — creating a dangerous echo chamber. 19% of managers state that a youthful appearance deters them from considering an applicant, and 36% recommend that Gen Z candidates should “try to appear older during interviews”.

Job advertisements — can shape the age pool of applicants, where the language used causes applications to ‘self-select’ themselves for the role, thus narrowing the applicant pool. An advertisement using words like ‘young’, ‘fresh’, ‘energetic’ can all discourage older workers from applying for a role. While ‘experienced’, ‘dependable’, ‘knowledgeable’ can act in the same way for younger workers.

Training — Even upon entering the workplace, the training employees receive is subconsciously shaped by ageist assumptions. Perhaps you constantly send exciting new opportunities for your GenZ employees, subversively shutting off avenues for growth and development for those you exclude. The most clear example of this is a study from Carolina State University, which asked undergraduates to train another person on a computer task. When the trainers believed they were teaching an older person, they had lower expectations and provided worse training. With more than half of the workforce saying they need more training to perform better in their current roles, this inadvertently limits career development and opportunities for those it effects.

Design of the workplace — ageism can even be interwoven into the very design of the workplace. In a bid to engage new talent, workplaces have increasingly been designed to accommodate a younger workforce. Open plan spaces, casual furniture and high-energy wellbeing initiatives might mean well, but they inadvertently exclude those who may struggle to work and socialise in this way. Gym facilities, nap pods, and games rooms, often cater predominantly to younger employees, while older employees might benefit more from ergonomic furniture, quiet lounges, or health and wellness programs tailored to their needs.

In contrast, office seating plans may be overtly hierarchal, separating the older and often more senior employees from the younger ones in private offices, reinforcing age-based stereotypes.

Menopause — to add to the invisibility of older workers, menopause sometimes isn’t even considered in the design and implementations of workplace processes. It’s inevitable that the workplace can be a fast-paced, high-pressure environment, inadvertently catering for the youth of today, with meetings crammed full of information, and a culture centered around being energetic and dynamic. But when employees are dealing with the often debilitating symptoms of menopause, such as brain fog, fatigue and difficulty concentrating — it is easy for these to act as a barrier. This can lead to women wrongly being seen as incompetent, therefore missing out on promotions or opportunities simply due to the way the workplace is designed. The shocking truth is that over half of women (53%) were able to think of a time when they were unable to go into work due to their menopause symptoms.

Ageism is damaging your business

It’s an incredibly hard notion to accept — in recent years we’ve liked to believe that our workplaces are diverse and inclusive places. It seems shocking to discover that discrimination still runs deep. But the truth of the matter is, until organisations begin to address the problem, they will find that productivity, innovation and well-being of their workforce will continue to take a hit.

In our series of blogs about the multigenerational workforce — we will explore the dangerous implications this can have for organisations, and the benefits they can unlock, should they choose to embrace this diversity and well, talk about ageism.

Final thoughts

The multigenerational workforce is becoming the future. It’s time to stop ageism being an acceptable prejudice. At the end of the day, we need to consider, can a workplace ever reap the benefits of diversity without accepting it in all it’s forms?

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