Ageism and age discrimination shouldn’t happen in the workplace—but they are a fact of life for older workers. Many employees at traditional retirement age or older are fit, healthy, and perfectly capable of continuing to work. Many have years of expertise and knowledge. But persistent opinions and misconceptions about aging lead to discrimination by younger bosses or co-workers.
Ageism can be annoying but benign, such as a joke about a slow older driver. Or it could happen in more serious ways, such as a layoff from a long-term job a few years before an employee wanted or expected to retire.
“Usually ageism is pretty obvious,” says Donna Dennis, PhD, who teaches Leading in a Diverse and Inclusive Culture and other courses for AMA and is a leadership coach at the Gestalt International Study Center.
It happens to everyone, but women—especially women of color—fare worse than men when it comes to age discrimination, economists at the University of California Irvine and Tulane University found.
Contending with ageism
Dennis, who also has experienced age discrimination in her career, shares three strategies for lessening the effects of ageism:
Check your own attitude: Don’t let ideas about aging become reality. It’s bad enough that younger people have misconceptions about aging that they assign to older workers—such as they’re not willing to accept change, they are slow, or they don’t understand technology. But when older people apply stereotypes to themselves, it’s self-defeating and can even affect their health, Dennis says.
A study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science found that if a person holds a negative view of aging from youth, it can lead to negative cognitive and physical outcomes when they become old. Participants with more positive self-perceptions “had better functional health over the course of the study and lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with more negative self-perceptions of aging,” the researcher, Becca Levy, PhD, wrote.
This study goes beyond external bias and looks at what older people do to themselves, Dennis says.
Manage your reactions to ageism. When someone says or does something that seems ageist, it’s natural to have a negative reaction, Dennis acknowledges. You may feel angry or sad about it. But she suggests trying to reframe the incident in a more positive way for yourself.
If a hiring manager says, for instance, “I would like to get some people on this team who can relate to Millennials,” you could interpret that as, “You’re too old for the team,” Dennis says. Instead of simply taking that as a defeat, remind yourself that the hiring manager has lost out on the value you would have contributed. “What I say to myself is, ‘Too bad they will miss out on my experience,’” she says.
Keep learning. Some of Dennis’s friends were forced into early retirement. In the face of a job market that hasn’t been good to older workers, people are getting resourceful, she says. One friend is doing pro-bono career coaching. Others are using the internet to find work. Although the pay is often less than what they were making, “People are getting creative about ways to make money,” she says.
We are living longer, which means there’s so much more to learn as we age, Dennis says. Her advice is to use all the resources the internet has to offer. She further suggests taking classes or building an informal network of people who are good teachers.
Dennis believes it will take time to actually see changed attitudes about aging, and she hopes anyone aware of ageism will be proactive about spreading awareness. However, she feels there has been progress. “We’ve come a long way in many ways,” she says. “We can speak up more about ageism now.”
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