I wish I could tell you all employers follow the law and pay equitably, regardless of age. I wish I could tell you that employers never “forcibly retire” workers due to their age. Or I could say we’ll all enjoy fair treatment at work as we age. But that isn’t entirely true. Not yet.
One thing I do know after 12 years in human resources and 20 years as a career coach is that ageism is pervasive, and just like racism and sexism, it’s institutionalized. Although it’s against the law to discriminate based on age, we still find ageism in employment, health care and advertising. Ageism even affects the way we see our own aging.
“An AARP survey in 2021 found that 78 percent of workers have witnessed or experienced age discrimination in the workplace,” according to AARP Magazine. “Four out of ten workers reported being asked improperly for age-related information while looking for work.”
What can you do? Follow these three ways to combat ageism, learn about age discrimination and actively quash it in the workplace.
1. Recognizing Ageism
If you are over age 40 or work with people who are, watch for key signs that you might work for a discriminatory company or are applying to work for one. These signs might include the following:
- There’s no diversity in the ages of staff and management in company photos.
- Job ads stress the candidate should bring “fresh ideas” or that they are looking for “recent college grads” or people who possess the “energy to excel in a fast-paced environment.”
- Managers assign the most tedious or entry-level assignments to older workers or pass over older workers for new training opportunities, challenging projects, salary increases or promotions.
- Staff use language for older adults that is demeaning or infantilizing, such as “honey” or “sweetie.” Or give birthday cards or tell jokes that use stereotypical tropes about getting older.
- Managers ask about their employees' retirement plans, or you hear comments such as, “He’s already retired in place, isn’t he?”
If you notice any of the above examples at your workplace, consider becoming an ally to persons over 40. Ask how you can make the workplace less discriminatory and have discussions with your co-workers and managers about how to stop ageist practices.
2. Avoiding Ageism
Here are a few ways to avoid the most blatant forms of discrimination during the hiring process and on the job.
During the Hiring Process
Use your resume as your marketing brochure to show off your talents in the best light. The only reason for a resume is to get you an interview. It is not a job application, which is a legal document. Consider these resume tips to keep recruiters from viewing you as older and passing you over for an interview:
- Use a Gmail account rather than older email forms such as Hotmail, AOL or Yahoo.
- List only one phone number, and it doesn’t need to say “cell,” “home” or “mobile.”
- Start with a profile paragraph that defines who you are with no dates attached. Perhaps begin with, “More than ten years of experience in…” Few jobs, even at senior levels, require more than 5-7 years of experience, so confirming you have 25 years in a job can date you.
- Leave off the years you graduated high school or college. List the degree(s) earned unless you have a recent additional graduate degree; then, you might list the year.
- Under skills, no need to list “Microsoft Office” or “Outlook.” Most employers assume the average person knows how to use these tools.
- In your “Work Experience” section, list only those jobs that are relevant to the position for which you are applying and do list the dates you worked at those employers.
On the Job
Once on the job, do everything you can to be a solid contributor, such as:
- Make positive first impressions by being on time, smiling and making eye contact. Show that you learn quickly by taking notes and applying new knowledge immediately. As new workers join the team, recognize when you or others make assumptions about a person’s appearance. Be aware people make judgments about a person in the first 15 seconds of meeting them and avoid ageist stereotypes.
- Establish relationships with younger workers by mentoring them or collaborating on projects.
- Keep up with technology by experimenting with new software and taking online programs. If you know someone who could use help with technology, either help them out or suggest they call tech support rather than allowing them to become frustrated.
- Invest in your continued professional development, which includes outside coursework, in-house classes and volunteering for teams rolling out new products. As a manager or supervisor, invest in workers of all ages and encourage everyone to keep current.
- Fight ageist stereotypes of older workers being “tired” or not tech savvy by your actions and by not perpetuating ageist stereotypes through your language usage. Push back if you hear colleagues use ageist terms. If you create job descriptions, examine the language you use to ensure it is inclusive.
- Keep your network thriving and your options open by continuing to meet with colleagues outside your company. Some experts advise going on at least one job interview per quarter to keep current with what’s available and expand your network.
- Prove you’re not “retired in place” or are taking the job for granted by applying all the above tips. If you’re a manager, don’t label older workers as “marking time until retirement.” Sometimes, older adults are simply tired of being excluded and opt to do the basics.
3. Reporting Ageism
At a minimum, speak up against ageism and discrimination. Keep a log of incidents and let someone know if another employee at your organization treats you disrespectfully. Contact your human resources department if you feel your supervisor passed you over for promotion, paid you less or provided you with fewer opportunities based on your age. If your HR department doesn’t listen to your concerns, consider contacting AARP, the Washington State Human Rights Commission or the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
Nancy Weinbeck, CEO of the Bayview Retirement Community in Seattle, notes, “Unfortunately, our society bombards us with cues that feed our brains negative images and stereotypes of older adults that are difficult to fight but fight we must.” Sometimes, we unwittingly support these stereotypes. Be inclusive in your personal circles and at work. Don’t perpetuate ageist attitudes.
I hope someday we’ll be able to say, “Age discrimination is in the past.” Let’s all work together to make that a true statement.
If you want to learn more ways to help combat ageism in the workplace, check out these resources: