No age group is as stereotyped as the over 50s. This is the conclusion we have to reach after a learning the shocking extent of age-related discrimination in the workplace. What does this mean for companies, inclusion, and talent management?
As of 2020, around 37% of the global workforce is aged 50 and over. By 2050, that figure will shoot up to 45% on average across the member countries of the OECD. Yet despite making up a significant part of the labor market, older workers face significant challenges in finding a job, keeping a job, and being promoted.
There’s a word for this: ageism. And it’s pervasive in the workplace.
Data suggests that ageism is occurring at higher levels than ever before. In the US, nearly all (93%) of adults aged 50-plus in the labor force believe that ageism at work is a regular occurrence. Roughly one-third (32%) say they’ve heard negative comments in the workplace about an older co-worker’s age in the last two years. And 13% say they have been passed up for a promotion or chance to get ahead because of their age.
Across Asia, the stats are similar. The Asia-Pacific region is undergoing profound and rapid population changes. In China, roughly 1/5 of the population in 2020 was aged 60 and above. Age begets ageism. In China ageism starts as early as 35, a trend dubbed as the “age 35 phenomenon.” Much younger than other countries.
Even companies that are renowned for their inclusion and diversity practices are accused of age-related bias. In 2019, Google settled an age discrimination case related to its hiring practices. The tech giant agreed to make a multi-million-dollar payout to more than 200 job seekers over the age of 40 who allegedly were refused positions despite their highly pertinent experience. As part of the settlement, Google will be forced to train managers about ageism and form a recruiting committee focused on age diversity.
Another tech giant, IBM, has also run into legal trouble. The company fired about 20,000 U.S. employees over the age of 40, which amounted to about 60% of its total job cuts. As reported by Bloomberg, “IBM executives discussed in emails how to force out older workers and derided them as ‘dinobabies’’ who should be made an ‘extinct species.’”
Today’s age discrimination may not be as in your face as it was in the 1950s, when a job ad might say, ‘No one over 50 years old need apply.’ But head over to a corporate careers site and there’s a good chance you’ll be not-so-subtly hit with pictures of fresh-faced graduates and attractive employees in their 20s. You have to comb through a lot of websites before you find an image of a particular type of employee — one who is over 50 years old.
The ugly truth about ageism is that it’s alive and kicking in the corporate world. And unlike other bias it seems to be tolerated.
What are companies doing to tackle the problem?
Not as much as they could be. It’s puzzling that for all the work done on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategies, little attention is paid to age. A global CEO study found only 8% of companies with DEI initiatives included age as a focus area, making age the most accepted ‘ism’ in the workplace.
Why? Perhaps, because it’s a murky area and could be linked to compensation. It’s not that a company dislikes an older worker but they may balk at the salary of an employee with 30++ years of credentials and experience. As companies prepare for a recession, there’s a trend that mid-career professionals will face the strain of job losses.
In many cases, though, it’s simply a matter of unconscious bias. Older workers come with pre-built assumptions about them being less tech-savvy, less productive, and more likely to be sick or absent from work — even though there’s plenty of research to show that these stereotypes are unfounded. On a deeper level, some assume that seasoned workers want to take immediate control of teams, play the seniority card to get out of the grunt work, or say to junior members, “Listen up, this is the way it’s been done for 30 years.” There’s an overall feeling that they just won’t fit in.
Whatever the root causes, ageism it’s a real problem and an exceedingly hard challenge for older workers. It’s also a missed opportunity. If so little value is placed on experienced and capable workers, then why would they stay?
So what can be done to combat ageism?
As with any bias, the first step to overcoming ageism is becoming aware of it. Only when you know the extent of the problem can you get it on the radar of corporate DEI initiatives and job design.
One of the tools I use in my practice is the 360 ILC assessment tool, which is part of the Inclusive Leadership Compass Framework. The 360 ILC uses multi-rater feedback to measure an individual’s inclusive leadership behaviors in a number of areas, including:
● How deeply they believe in the value of difference?
● How open they are to different people, ideas and change ?
● How much energy they spend on empowering diverse talent?
● How well they harness people’s differences to create real value for their teams and organizations?
● How do they demonstrate being an advocate for inclusion?
The results of this assessment (and others like it) form a solid basis for coaching, which itself is a powerful tool in the fight against ageism (and other biases). I often work with clients on how they can be more strategic and future-focused in their thinking so that they’re less likely to default to age stereotypes. This demands a combination of inner work — honing the personal attributes of self-awareness and humility that enable leaders to check their biases at the door — as well as outer work, where they learn new ways of empowering others and enabling diverse-thinking teams.
Team coaching can also be incredibly valuable for companies that wish to force a cultural shift. When we bring all employees together for a guided cross-generational conversation, it becomes much easier for everyone to understand each other better, bridge different perspectives, and break down age wars.
As populations age, we face the urgent challenge of transitioning from a youth-based work culture. People are living longer and healthier lives — as the number of centenarians is on the rise — your 40s should be considered a starting point and a long way from retirement. Organizations that capitalize on the best talent that’s out there — regardless of age — are the success stories of the future.