It’s nothing new that youth is celebrated in our culture — from scores of beautiful models portrayed in the media to “fountain of youth” product or plastic/aesthetic surgery advertisements everywhere, consumers are constantly inundated with images and messages that prioritize beauty and youth over health. Unfortunately, the same can hold true in the workplace when it comes to hiring and firing practices — youth often reigns supreme over experience, leading to unfortunate practices of ageism. Also, when it comes to equity in the workplace, the media is more apt to cover stories and incidents surrounding gender or racial discrimination, and age discrimination often takes a back seat.
Age discrimination is defined by the EEOC as treating an applicant/employee differently or less favorably due to his/her age.Though it may not get as much publicity, the truth is that ageism is rampant in the job market and workplace. Unbeknownst to many and in contrast to the label of “senior citizen” starting at age 65, ageism can start popping up for workers as early as age 40. In fact, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), passed in 1967, forbids age discrimination against employees and applicants who are age 40 or older and/or discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.
How Does Ageism in the Workplace Really Play Out?
In an ageism study conducted by Hiscox in 2019, 21% percent of U.S. workers aged 40 or older said they already faced or experienced age discrimination, with age 51 being the most common; and of those, only 40% reported it. It is unfortunately very common for employers to convey prejudiced attitudes towards older workers. Age discrimination is perpetuated by negative attitudes surrounding older people’s general awareness, health status, educational background, or overall skill set as compared to their younger counterparts. And, older workers who are female have another strike against them since gender equity in the workplace remains to be a steadfast factor as well.
Age discrimination in the workplace can come into play for candidates and employees in the following ways:
HIRING PRACTICES: Many recruiters and HR departments favor younger applicants and may use verbiage that skews to a younger audience or may call for digital skills or job requirements geared towards newer technologies and/or knowledge.
ON-THE-JOB TREATMENT: Older workers are often the recipient of harassment or discrimination and frequently get passed up when it comes to professional development and training opportunities or are barred from paths of upward mobility and remain stagnant in their careers.
FIRING/LAYOFFS/RETIREMENT: Older workers are often a target when it comes to downsizing, firings or can even be pushed into early retirement, as employers recognize that their tenure with the company will be shorter/more finite and their contributions more limited.
While age discrimination is formally wrong in the eyes of the law, it is a strikingly common occurrence. As an AARP Bulletin reported back in 2019, “. . .the laws that are supposed to protect workers from ageism are decidedly weaker than laws protecting against other forms of bias.” This translates to less success if a current [or former] employee brings a discrimination suit against his/her company to court. In this case, experience does not always signify wisdom or trump age when it comes to the workplace.
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