Ageism at Work is Viewed as the Last Acceptable Bias

A report issued by AARP joins a growing body of research demonstrating age discrimination in the workplace. The research found that age bias occurs in hiring, whereby employers target younger applicants in job ad language; on-the-job situations, in which older workers are harassed and prevented from advancing due to misperceptions about their tech skills; and firing, whereby older workers are targeted for dismissals because of false perceptions about their pay levels and contributions. The report also found that large employers often tolerate age bias because the laws that protect older workers are “decidedly weaker” than those prohibiting other forms of discrimination. The report indicated nearly 4 in 10 of employers said that their businesses have a mandatory retirement age, and more than half of respondents said their companies do not include age in diversity and inclusion policies.  Around the world, mandatory retirement policies were most common in the fields of government and public administration, followed closely by energy, telecommunications, and utilities.

2019 Hiscox Ageism in the Workplace Study indicated that more than 20% of employees over age 40 experienced age discrimination in the workplace while those around 51 years of age were the biggest targets.

Visier, a people analytics firm, examined age bias across industry sectors and found that misperceptions about older workers’ skills and proficiencies are more pronounced in the tech industry. The average age of tech workers and managers is significantly lower than in the non-tech arena  and the frequency of promotions in the industry decreases rapidly after age 36.  This is due in part to their attempt to attract young workers by appearing more youthful in the way they communicate their brand and job opportunities. Businesses relying too much on generational data risk introducing ageism into the workplace.

As companies rebuild following the impact of the pandemic, many companies increasingly recognize that diversity of gender, race, abilities, orientation, faith and age builds high-performing organizations, healthier communities and more engaged employees. Here are three compelling reasons for addressing age discrimination:

  1. Longevity is resulting in a multi-generational workforce. Half of all children born in the U.S. after 2007 will live to be 104. This increase in longevity, coupled with declining birth rates, means that the workforce as a whole is aging. By 2024, workers 50 and over will make up 35 percent of the U.S. workforce. And in 2021, the first wave of millennials have begun to turn 40, the age at which they fall under the protection of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  The spread of ages in the available labor pool means that organizations will need to recruit workers across the age spectrum to continue to grow.
  2. An age-diverse workforce promotes stability. This applies both in terms of turnover and the ability to deal with adversity. Research shows lower unexpected attrition rates across all age groups in age-inclusive organizations. Mid- and late-career workers exhibit lower rates of unexpected turnover than younger workers overall with 29 percent of workers over age 50 looking for or are open to finding a new job, versus 49 percent of workers under 50. Additionally, older workers have lived through periods of upheaval in the past and can provide a balanced view of how to react to change.
  3. Mixed-age teams fuel innovation and productivity. Research shows age diversity has a positive impact on team productivity and performance. This is partially because diversity in general increases innovation and boosts organizational outcomes. But age diversity appears to boost productivity at the team level as knowledge gained from past experiences is shared, which in turn sparks new solutions to problems while avoiding costly mistakes. Perhaps this is why Information Technology & Innovation Foundation found that the average age of innovators across a range of industries at the time of their innovation is 47.

At a time when talent scarcity is reaching record levels, it is critically important for companies to tap into all sources of talent, making accommodations where needed to bring together a workforce that can drive business growth and innovation.