What is ageism and age discrimination?
Having lived through considerable change, gaining huge levels of experience and resilience in the process, older workers are a valuable asset to any business.
Despite this, it is not uncommon for older workers to face regular discrimination because of their age.
The Equality Act 2010 says age is a protected characteristic, but a Reed Talent Solutions survey of 1,000 employees over 40 years of age showed almost one-in-five (17%) said they have experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
This number increased to one-in-four (26%) for people aged 60-65, suggesting the older workers get, the more age discrimination they face.
Among answers given by employees regarding the type of discrimination they had experienced, the most common was that they had been overlooked for promotion.
Other answers included:
“A colleague constantly joking about old people in work”
“Being considered stale as I’m over 50 and having historical knowledge dismissed’
“Because I’m nearly 50 I get comments about the menopause”
“Repeatedly asked when I would retire”
Who is affected?
It is important to remember that ageism in the workplace does not always affect older workers.
Take the example of a 22-year-old graduate whose input is dismissed because co-workers automatically assume they are too young, or lack the necessary experience, to have a valid opinion.
However, age discrimination examples are often associated with older workers.
There are perceptions that older workers are stuck in their ways or lack motivation, that their IT skills are poor, or that they are simply seeing out time before retiring.
Such assumptions are clear examples of ageism, but it is not always obvious when an individual is a victim of age discrimination in the workplace.
Take two workers at a fictional company. One is a 60-year-old man, John, who has been working there for 25 years, the other is a new employee, Jane, straight out of university.
Jane has hit the ground running and reached all her targets, showing a willingness to learn new skills and embrace the company culture. Meanwhile, John’s work over the past year has been sloppy and he has missed a series of deadlines.
Both employees get their annual wage increase, but Jane also gets a performance bonus. Is this ageism or simply that Jane has worked harder and earnt her bonus?
Of course, such an example does not mean age discrimination does not exist in that or any other workplace. Perhaps John’s poor performance is the result of continually being put down by managers or not being given proper training, resulting in a lack of motivation.
But what it does show is that these issues are not always as clear cut as they may at first seem.
Age discrimination and employee health
While jokes about ‘having a senior moment’ or ‘getting over the hill’ might be seen a harmless, they can cause damage to older workers’ health and wellbeing.
Such everyday ageism helps perpetuate negative stereotypes within the workplace.
Age discrimination can be both overt and subtle, with very narrow beliefs about ageing, resulting in older workers losing their individuality.
While it is important to bear in mind that older workers are more likely to experience health issues, companies should not take a broad-brush approach. Many older workers face discrimination around perceptions of their health while they would describe their own health as good.
Even worse, such discrimination can affect people’s mental health and motivation. The stress of being constantly bombarded with ageism can become internalised – leading, perhaps ironically, to premature ageing.
How to tell if staff have been discriminated against?
It is possible for age discrimination to go unnoticed, or for it to be the result of subtle behaviour that might be seen as ageism by older employees – for example, constantly telling an older worker their clothes or music tastes are out of date.
Signs of ageism in the workplace include:
Training and learning opportunities are automatically offered to younger employees and not older ones
Older workers are overlooked or passed over for challenging or new assignments – perhaps in favour of more mundane tasks
While younger employees with young families can take holiday or time off for family commitments, there is an unspoken assumption that older employees are not entitled to take this time
Older workers are left out of client meetings or company events
Comments are made which are critical about someone’s age. These can be presented as being playful, including jokes around an older workers’ retirement plans, tastes, IT skills or general health
Older workers are ignored when it comes to pay raises or promotions
How to support older staff
One of the most important steps when it comes to overcoming ageism is not to assume that your workplace is immune to age discrimination.
Managers – indeed all employees within a company – should learn to recognise their own thinking patterns, to recognise stereotypes and to challenge their assumptions.
There are a number of ways staff can be supported to counter ageism:
Invest in employees’ growth and development through training and learning opportunities
Introduce a mentoring scheme across the company. This can work both ways with younger workers benefitting from the experience of their older counterparts, and older ones learning fresh skills from graduates
Commit to fighting stereotypes around ageing workers, such as assumptions they are uncomfortable with change and technology, or lack energy and ambition
Be flexible: create opportunities for older workers to reduce the number of hours or days that they work, or to take a step back from a high-powered role while still using their experience for the benefit of the company – but remember, many older workers will still be looking to develop and progress in their careers
Reed Talent Solutions’ whitepaper, ‘Internal mobility and the ageing workforce’ provides much more information around age discrimination and how internal mobility practices can be used to counter it.