Ageism: Apparently Companies Didn’t Receive the Memo Yet!

ageismRemember way back when….let’s say the 1980s and 1990s when 40 years old was considered middle age and 50 years old was over the hill? Living to be 90 and even 100 hundred years old has become the norm, not the celebrated exception anymore. And with longevity and an extended quality of life, all age-related rules are being broken.

Well…almost.  Apparently many employers haven’t gotten that memo yet.  Ageism is apparently in full swing.

A New York Times article just mentioned that over a million and half Americans over 50, “with decades of life ahead of them, [are] unable to find work.  The underlying reason isn’t personal, it’s structural. It’s the result of a network of attitudes and institutional practices that we can no longer ignore.”

But then what can you expect when society is so obsessed with youthful appearance and vigor that experience has become a liability? What can you expect when skilled, educated, white guys in their 30s and 40s are getting Botox and hair transplants before interviews?

What’s behind the dumb practice of ageism?

Well certainly money plays a part. Older workers get paid more. Younger replacement workers cost less.  But higher compensation should be justified considering their experience.

To be fair, I know quite a few fellow Baby Boomers who deserve to be cut from the payroll.  Quite a few should be thankful it hasn’t happened sooner.  Many haven’t upgraded their skills in many years, if ever, and feel entitled to more pay and job security just for punching the clock longer than anyone else. Even I don’t get it (a 60+ year old Baby Boomer) when I hear 50 year olds tell me they’ll “too old to learn new things” or “technology isn’t their thing.” (Those are actual excuses I’ve heard in the last week.)

But that’s also not how the world works anymore.  You don’t deserve good pay and job security with yesterday’s job skills.  No one is even guaranteed a good paying job tomorrow with today’s skills. Experience and skill are only relevant if they add value to the organization and job requirements change frequently.

So what about the Baby Boomers and even older Gen X who have evolved with the times? Why are they getting the short end of the stick?

First of all, there are a lot of negative stereotypes about age. But not one of them holds up.

Abundant data show that they’re reliable, handle stress well, master new skills and are the most engaged of all workers when offered the chance to grow and advance on the job. Older people might take longer to accomplish a given task, but they make fewer mistakes. They take longer to recover from injury but hurt themselves less often. It’s a wash. (Source: NY Times)

A second but more insidious problem affects both old and young workers.

Culture fit is a hot topic and strategy these days.  Finding people who fit in your culture is essential for all sorts of reasons including maximum productivity and engagement.  But the idea that everyone in the organization has to share the same attitudes and work styles can unintentionally result in age discrimination. A mixed age workforce means that different generations must be welcomed and embraced as guests from another planet, not enemies invading your territory. Open-mindedness is essential and each person must be respected for the talent and skill they bring. The attitude that all Millennials are slackers void of any work ethic and Baby Boomers are relics mired in nostalgia is lethal. It’s got to end…now!

Age discrimination in employment is illegal, but that doesn’t stop it from occurring. Two-thirds of older job seekers report encountering it. Millennials face similar rejection too (“it will take me forever to bring this guy up to speed”) but the Equal Employment Opportunity laws don’t protect workers under 40.

But illegal or not, ageism is just a stupid practice.  Motivation and effort affect output far more than age does. With talent shortages reaching all-time highs, age is the last thing any manager should be looking at.

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