Avoid Ageism and Add Resiliency to Your Workforce

News headlines have recently shifted attention to workplace age discrimination by the International Business Machines Corporation, also known as IBM (Clarey, 2022). The New York Times indicates that “top IBM executives were directly involved in discussions about the need to reduce the portion of older employees at the company, sometimes disparaging them with terms of art like ‘dinobabies’” (Scheiber, 2022). Research indicates that workplace age discrimination (also known as “ageism”) is still going on today (Harris, 2018; WHO, 2021). For example, a Los Angeles jury awarded T.J. Simer $15.4 million in damages against the Los Angeles Times due to discrimination based on age and disability (Gurchiek, 2019). Google has also found itself in hot water due to allegations that “the company exhibited preferential hiring toward job candidates under the age of 40” and ultimately paid $11 million for it (Gurchiek, 2019).

But why is this still happening? What does the data say about ageism? What can business leaders do today to avoid the negative repercussions of ageism?

“Ageism is as odious as racism and sexism.” - Claude Pepper

What is ageism?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Ageism is “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel), and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age” (2021). According to the Law Commission of Ontario (LCO), Robert Butler was the first to coin the term “ageism.” Butler defines ageism as a “process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish with skin colour and gender. Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different than themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings” (LCO, n.d.). Furthermore, the Law Commission of Ontario also states that ageism is “often ingrained and systemic” and that it can “inhibit people’s objectivity and subsequently influence decisions” (LCO, n.d.).

Who does ageism affect?

While the original definition of ageism is focused on older generations as seen in Butler’s definition, it can also apply to those in younger generation as well. The World Health Organization states that “ageism affects everyone” (2021). They also state that “ageism can change how we view ourselves, can erode solidarity between generations, can devalue or limit our ability to benefit from what younger and older populations can contribute” (WHO, 2021). In 2021, 50% of individuals were found to be ageist in a survey by the World Health Organization. This research also found that “younger people report more ageism” (WHO, 2021). Ultimately, while ageism affects older generations primarily, its consequences affect everyone worldwide.

Statistics of interest

  • “63% of those 45+ have been unemployed for longer than a year versus 52% of those 35–44 and 36% of those aged 18–34” (Mourshed et al., 2021)

  • “Hiring managers hold negative perceptions of 45+ individuals, even though employers experience strong job performance from those whom they hire from this age group” (Mourshed et al., 2021)

  • “The three characteristics most likely to hamper the success of 45+ individuals in the job market, hiring managers most often mention: reluctance to try new technologies, inability to learn new skills, and difficulty working with coworkers of a different generation” (Mourshed et al., 2021)

  • “Employers rate 45+ hires as strongly as their younger peers in performance and in potential for retention” (Mourshed et al., 2021)

  • “Unbiased recruiting practices are used by only 6% of employers” (OECD, 2020)

  • “70% of employers report that they would likely implement or at least explore multigenerational workforce policies” (OECD, 2020)

  • By 2024, almost 24.8% of the US workforce will be 55+ (Toossi & Torpey, 2017)

  • Up to 14,183 charges on the basis of age discrimination were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2021 alone (EEOC, n.d.)

  • Less than half of those who have experienced age discrimination reported it to the EEOC (Hiscox, 2019)

  • 1 in 5 surveyed individuals state that they have faced age discrimination themselves (Hiscox, 2019)

  • “Fifty-eight percent of Americans age 50 and older say older workers face discrimination in the workplace” (Young, 2019)

  • More than 25% of surveyed individuals “feel there is some risk they could lose their current job because of age” (Hiscox, 2019)

  • 36% of workers “feel their age has prevented them from getting a job since turning 40” (Hiscox, 2019)

  • 43% of those served “left a company due to age discrimination experienced or witnessed” (Hiscox, 2019)

  • “$810.4 million is the amount employers paid to settle age discrimination charges filed with the EEOC between 2010 and 2018, not including litigation.” (Hiscox, 2019)

“We are always the same age inside.” - Gertrude Stein

A note on research

Current research on age diversity reveals mixed results in many regards. For example, research by Ellwart, Bündgens, and Rack indicates that the relationship between age diversity and “knowledge exchange” is complex and affected by “age-related diversity perceptions and positive diversity beliefs” of employees (2012). They specifically state that “Age diversity in teams will be a predominant characteristic of future workgroups. Although objective age diversity may affect team performance and identification, this study underlines the significant impact of individuals’ diversity perceptions and beliefs” (Ellwart et al., 2012).

Other resources point to the impact of “social categorization” which is much like the saying: birds of a feather flock together. These resources claim that the homogeneity of socially categorized groups can result in “higher group performance” (HR Cloud, 2021). However, deductive reasoning implies that when groups are homogeneous, they do not have access to the variety of experiences and knowledge a heterogeneous group would have.

Other researchers point out that the introduction of “age-inclusive HR systems seems to be beneficial for all organizations,” regardless of their current average age or rate of age diversity in their workplace (Boehm et al., 2013).

How does ageism affect businesses

Loss of information share

When businesses act on ageist ideas, they ultimately disregard the knowledge and experience of older generations. According to Vantage Aging, “employers who do not provide opportunities for older workers lose valuable experience” (2021). Furthermore, The World Health Organization states that ageism can “erode solidarity between generations” (WHO, 2021). When businesses do not protect their workplace cultures from ageism, they decrease the influx of experiential knowledge from hiring new older-generation workers and decrease the flow of this information between young and old workers alike.

“The youth can walk faster, but the elder knows the road.” - African Proverb

Discrimination liabilities

Not only does ageism prevent information sharing, but it is also illegal. According to the U.S Department of Labor, the “Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 of (ADEA) protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensations, or terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” Furthermore the ADEA is also “enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission” (U.S. Dept. of Labor, n.d.). As seen in the examples discussed above, ageism can be extremely costly for employers with lawsuits.

Damage to employer branding

If it becomes evident that decisions and policies are based on ageist policies, employees' image of an employer can be damaged. Employees want employers who care and are empathetic. Consider the following statistic: “83% of Gen Z employees would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a slightly higher salary” (BusinessSolver, 2020). Employees, prospective employees, and customers care about the stance a corporation takes towards its employees. By allowing ageist ideas to impact the workplace, employers risk damaging their employer branding which can have negative consequences on their attraction of new employees and customers.

Damage to employee wellbeing

According to Medical News Today, “Ageism has a negative impact on physical and mental health, and reports link it with earlier death.” The World Health Organization estimates that ageism can reduce lifespan by “7.5 years,” reduce physical and mental health, reduce quality of life, and increase unhealthy behaviors such as “drinking excessively or smoking” (WHO, 2021). This damage to employee wellbeing, not only harms employees and the communities that they are involved in, but also has the potential to reduce productivity and employee retention.

“Diversity is not about how we differ. Diversity is about embracing one another’s uniqueness.” - Ola Joseph

Benefits of age diversity

While ageism has a variety of negative effects on the workplace, it has been reported that age diversity can have multiple benefits for the modern workplace.

Improved productivity

Age diversity can positively impact workplace productivity. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), firms with more older employees than average are more productive than those with below-average or an average number of older employees (2020). They also state that “the experience of older workers helps younger workers perform better, thereby boosting firm productivity directly and indirectly” (OECD, 2020).

Increased resiliency

The OECD predicts that age diversity can make businesses more resilient to “live events for certain age groups - like the birth of a child - or other health events or risks” (2020). For example, if your workforce is disproportionately young adults in their 20s, life events such as “the birth of a child” could pose issues. Furthermore, researchers Duchek, Raetze, and Scheuch state that, “diversity can help enhance organizational resilience” (2019).

Decreased turnover

The OECD also states that “turnover is 4% lower at firms that have a 10% higher share of workers aged 50 and over” (2020). Decreasing turnover rates is an increasingly important concern for those companies who are struggling to hire skilled workers during The Great Resignation. Nate Taylor explains this by stating in his article from People Partners, “According to recent studies, age diversity improves employee turnover as it is natural to older team members to display greater loyalty. In turn, this stability and consistency increase motivation across all staff, driving up the intent to stay with an organization companywide.” Researchers Ali and French have also indicated that “effective age diversity management can lead to” increased employee retention (2019).

“Creating and managing a diverse workforce is a process, not a destination.” - Roosevelt Thomas, Jr.

Applying age-diversity to the workplace

Research from sources such as Ellwart, Bündgens, and Rack surface the importance of HR policies and procedures and how they can complement age diversity in the workplace (2012). Researchers Ali and French also state that an “organization's diversity perspective greatly influences its ability to capitalize on the benefits of” diversity programs (2013). Because of this, it is important for business leaders to carefully consider how they will implement age diversity into their organization, as it is key to reaping the benefits of age diversity. Below are several ideas and recommendations for employers looking to implement age-diversity programs within their workplace.

Intergenerational interactions

Research from the American Journal of Public Health indicates that “intergenerational contact showed the largest effects on attitudes towards the multigenerational workplace.” This finding was especially true for females and young adult groups (Burnes et al., 2019). The World Health Organization also supports these findings and states “intergenerational interventions are effective interventions for reducing ageism against older people, and are promising for reducing ageism against younger people” (WHO, 2021). The Society of Human Resource Management also advises that employers “[create] intergenerational or experienced-worker employee resource groups,” “[build] mixed-age teams,” and invite “retirees or experienced professionals from outside the organization to participate in specific initiatives or on a project-by-project basis” (SHRM, 2019).

Policy and procedures

Embracing age diversity is also supported by examining the policies and procedures used in hiring and recruitment (Janove, 2019). The World Health Organization states that “policy and law can address discrimination and inequality based on age and protect the human rights of everyone, everywhere” (WHO, 2021). The Society of Human Resource Management recommends “setting up a career re-entry program for people who have taken an extended leave from the workforce” and supporting “legislative reforms to strengthen legal protections for older workers” (SHRM, 2019).

Educational activities

According to the World Health Organization, “educational interventions include instruction that transmits information, knowledge, and skills, as well as activities to enhance empathy through role-playing, simulation, and virtual reality.” They also state that “interventions that combine education and intergenerational contact have a slightly larger effect on attitudes than intergenerational interventions used alone” (WHO, 2021). The Society of Human Resource Management also recommends conducting company-wide age-discrimination workshops (SHRM, 2019).

Utilizing flexible work arrangements to welcome the older workforce

According to Harvard Business Review, “about three-quarters of individuals approaching retirement have for some time said that they would like to keep working in some capacity, yet only about a quarter of them actually do” (Cappelli, 2014). In order to invite these workers into your workplace, there are several strategies that can be used.

The Society of Human Resource Management, SHRM, explains that “mature workers often seek new challenges through second careers and look for work to fulfill personal goals that stretch beyond a salary and benefits. Flexible work arrangements allow mature workers to continue contributing on the job while also focusing on personal and family needs.” Some organizations such as CVS have “Snowbird” programs that allow employees “to change locations based on the seasons.” Other flexible work arrangements include “phased retirements, reduced hours, formal and informal temporary assignments for specific projects, job-sharing, telecommuting, seasonal work based on ebb and flow of organizational demands, flextime, and compressed work schedules (fewer days, longer hours each day) (Hitch & Kirkman, n.d.). Other flexible work arrangements include “hourly flexibility,” part-time and on-call employment, “hiring retirees as consultants or temporary workers,” “providing opportunities to transfer to jobs with reduced pay and responsibilities,” “project work,” and “alternative career tracks” (Roundtree, 2012). Consider the following types of workplace flexibility from Linda Roundtree:

Other recommendations for creating a welcoming workforce include “acknowledging and using” older generations’ experience (Cappelli, 2014). Managers and leaders can treat more experienced employees “as partners” while still remaining “in charge” and responsible for “decisions” and “goals” (Cappelli, 2014). The Harvard Business Review also recommends paring older and young workers together because of their “similar interests” and decreased competitiveness due to different stages of life (Cappelli, 2014).

Main takeaway

The effects of ageism in the workplace have a variety of negative consequences on the workplace. By purposefully or accidentally reducing the age diversity in the workplace, business leaders miss out on the wealth of information afforded by multigenerational experiences, are at risk of illegal discrimination, damage their employer branding, and can reduce their employees’ wellbeing. However, when employers intentionally embrace age diversity in their workplaces through intentional hiring, human resource policies, and creating welcoming workplaces employers can improve productivity, decrease turnover, and increase resiliency in their workplaces.

“Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.” - Katherine Phillips


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