Fighting Workplace Age Discrimination: How Older Workers Can Push Back Against the Reality of Ageism
It has been called “the last acceptable bias” – not because it’s okay, but because it’s so common. We’re talking about age discrimination, also referred to as ageism. Who hasn’t heard (or repeated) jokes about feeble and forgetful seniors? Yet when otherwise qualified workers are denied the opportunity to work simply because of their age, it’s discriminatory behavior that is not only morally wrong but almost certainly unlawful.
Yet sadly, age discrimination in the workplace can be hard to prove and harder to fight. That’s why we appreciated this recent CNBC article by reporter Annie Nova. She gives an honest step-by-step assessment of what ageism is, how you can spot it, how you can protect yourself against it, and when (and if) to report it. We hope this raises your awareness and stimulates your thinking about this important workplace issue.
Age Discrimination is “an Unfair Paradox”
Nova begins her article with a sad truth: “Ageism is one of the most unfair paradoxes in the labor market,” she says. “People put in decades of hard work and then find themselves penalized for having done so.”
And sadly, this paradox isn’t getting any better. AARP’s most recent survey found that nearly 80 percent of older workers have seen or experienced workplace ageism. “That was the highest share since the group began asking the question in 2003,” Nova writes.
Older Workers at Higher Risk of Prolonged Unemployment
Despite the desperation of employers to hire on new workers after the pandemic caused so many to jump ship, many older workers are getting overlooked. “The percentage of jobseekers in February above the age of 55 who were ‘long-term unemployed,’ meaning they’d been looking for a job for 27 weeks or more, was more than 36 percent, compared to around 23 percent among those between the ages of 16 and 54,” Nova explains. She adds that about a quarter of the total workforce is over 55 years old.
It’s a tragically widespread problem. Author and advocate Ashton Applewhite says, “I get these heart-rending emails from people who are incredibly well-qualified, who send out hundreds and hundreds of emails and don’t even get an answer. They are so demoralized.” That sense of demoralization has real psychological consequences. According to the World Health Organization, “Around 6.3 million cases of depression globally are thought to be attributed to ageism.”
But if that figure includes you in any way, rest assured: you’re not alone. In her article, Nova includes the following strategies to deal with the rising ageism issue.
Start by Recognizing Your Own Views of Aging
Applewhite says, “We live in a culture that barrages us with negative messages about aging,” and because of this, “older people are often the most ageist of all.” What this means is that your own perceptions about your age can be deeply damaging to you, and to the others in your social circle. It can even cause negative images of aging to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nova cites this 202-page WHO research study which, she writes, “shows that older people exposed to subliminal negative age-stereotypes are more likely to perform poorly on cognitive and physical tasks.” However, the opposite is also true: “Studies find that individuals with more positive self-perceptions of ageing experienced better functional health and greater longevity,” she states in her article.
It’s easy to see how this might affect your performance professionally. If you assume that older people are incapable, you are more likely to assume that you’re incapable as you get older, and not even try to improve. But this thinking is not without an antidote. Applewhite encourages us to avoid stereotypes and instead to seek out facts. “The more we know about aging, the less fearful we become,” she says. “Our anxieties are way out of proportion to the reality.”
Will you have some decline in faculties as you get older? Sure – but that’s not the whole picture. “We talk about aging as if it’s entirely loss, but there are gains,” Applewhite says. “Find me an older person who actually wants to go back to their youth.”
Focus on Your Own Personal and Professional Growth
Studies have shown that older adults who focused on their personal growth were much more likely to thrive during the pandemic than others. Moreover, the good news is that growth has never been more accessible for older people. John Tarnoff, a career transition coach, encourages older adults to seek out free content on YouTube and formal classroom platforms to learn new skills and hone their long-held ones. “Many cities also offer employment services to seniors at little to no cost, including job placement and resume help,” Nova writes.
But Tarnoff also encourages seniors not to focus too much on what they lack, and instead to focus on the wisdom that “can’t be learned in a video.” He writes, “There’s a lot we bring to the table that isn’t on the page. If you don’t know the strategic value and experience you bring to the marketplace from decades at work, you’re selling yourself short.”
Be Prepared to Experience Age Bias
Sadly, one of the best ways to combat age discrimination is to prepare yourself for it, according to experts. Because it’s such a common problem, the signs of it can be easy to spot.
“If you’re before a hiring manager and suspect that they’re concerned about your age, Applewhite recommends responding to it head on,” Nova writes. Applewhite suggests you respond, “Say, ‘I know how to work this software,’ or, ‘I’m used to working with a younger team, and I don’t care if my boss is 12.’”
Another common question you may hear from hiring managers is whether you’re “overqualified” for a role. Nova explains, “Prompting that question can be a concern that you’ll take a better job as soon as you’re presented with one.” She goes on to quote Tarnoff’s suggestion for what to reply: “This is not a stepping stone for me. At this point in my life, this is what I want to do.”
Confront the Issue – but Do It Carefully
The last thing anyone should do with discrimination of any kind is ignore it, and that includes ageism. But it’s not the what, but the how that’s important. Alison Chasteen studies prejudice in her role as a professor at the University of Toronto. She found that “older people who respond to run-ins with ageism in a way that’s not accusatory are more likely to get a positive reaction than, say, those who get heated,” Nova writes.
She goes on to cite a common example: an older person is offered help to do a task they can certainly do on their own. Chasteen calls this “benevolent ageism” – the person means to be helpful, but is going about it the wrong way.
“We found that the moderate approach of saying, ‘Thank you, but I can manage on my own,’ resulted in fewer negative reactions to the older individual,” Chasteen says. “Such a response acknowledges that there was likely no ill intent on the part of the person who offered the unwanted help, but it also provides an opportunity for the older person to assert their competence in the situation.”
How Far to Go When Reporting Age Discrimination
As with any issues in the workplace, keeping a record is vital, along with acting fast to advocate for yourself. Civil rights attorney Jeff Vardaro puts it this way: “[Ageism] doesn’t fix itself. Workers have to take these things into their own hands.”
Vardaro advises against holding onto your complaints for too long, since some states have statutes of limitations on reporting ageism. And Nova adds, “Your notes about your experience should be as detailed as possible. For example, instead of writing that your boss said something mean about your age, you’ll want to specify that on 24 different occasions he asked you when you planned to retire.”
Approaching human resources is likely to be your first step, but Vardaro urges you not to stop there if it doesn’t go anywhere. “Sometimes human resources is in on it because they have some incentive to push older workers out and bring in younger, cheaper workers,” Vardaro says. “And, at the end of the day, their job is to protect the company, not the employees.”
Should You Complain to the Government?
“If you feel your complaints aren’t being taken seriously internally, that’s when you’ll want to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” Nova writes.
Vardaro advises consulting with an attorney before taking this step, since there are complexities to federal and state complaints, and protecting yourself is important. “It’s illegal for your boss to penalize you for contacting the EEOC,” Vardaro says, “but the reality is that retaliation still happens. I always advise that once an employee makes an internal complaint or files a charge, they stay on the lookout for any changes in the way they are treated.”
He adds, “We often find it easier to hold employers accountable for retaliation than for the original discrimination.”
But on a hopeful note, Applewhite’s approach to fighting ageism is simple: be true to yourself. “If you feel like you’re experiencing discrimination, I am really, really sorry,” she says. “If you have to dye your hair, or fudge your resume, no judgment. Do whatever you need to do.” But she adds, “as long as we pretend we’re younger than we are, we contribute to the discrimination that makes those behaviors necessary.”
Rajiv’s View: The Key is Ability, Not Age
Rajiv Nagaich of AgingOptions has witnessed plenty of examples of age discrimination in his legal career. “Ageism is when a person is judged based on their age, not their ability,” he says. “But we have to ask ourselves – do we have that same bias? Too often, we do.”
He gives an example he’s observed when clients are asked to name a person to be their agent under the terms of a legal document. They routinely prefer a younger person over an older one. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t want to name a parent or older sibling as my agent because they are too old.’ Instead, they pick someone less qualified. This business of age bias too often starts with us!”
Rajiv’s summation: “We need to learn to speak in terms of ability, not age. Personally, I would rather hire based on experience and ability than mere age any day. If a person is smart, hard-working, motivated, and passionate, why wouldn’t I hire them, no matter how old they are?”
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Photo Credit: Scott Lewis on Flickr
(originally reported at www.cnbc.com)