Examples of Ageism

Ageism Is Consciously and Unconsciously Practiced in the Workplace

Image shows a group of employees of various ages, races, and genders sitting in a meeting together, with the camera focused directly on the older female employee

Image by Thomas Barwick / Getty Images 2019

It’s quite possible that you’ll be exposed to ageism at some point in your career. It’s a strange form of prejudice because everyone gets older and those perpetuating it will most likely experience it later in life. Logically, people should not discriminate on the basis of age because they know that one day they will be 55 and looking for a new job.

But nevertheless, AARP found that 60% of people over 50 have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job and 90% say that it’s common. Although it is illegal for employers to discriminate against older employees, discrimination is difficult to prove. Older employees must prove that they lost a job or didn’t get an assignment solely because of their age.

About 56% of U.S. employees who are 50 or older are pushed out of their jobs before they plan to retire. Only one in 10 of these employees are able to find new work and earn as much, according to a study by Urban Institute economist Richard Johnson.

What Does Ageism Look Like?

It can be easy to overlook age discrimination, and proving it can be exceedingly difficult. For example, when the boss said she wanted to hire someone young, did she really mean an entry-level employee or is the age of the employee important? That joke about an employee needing bifocals soon—was that just a joke or was it a dig at the employee’s seniority? These examples demonstrate that ageism may be a conscious form of discrimination or an unconscious part of your daily conversation.

Ageism in Job Posts

Have you run across the phrase “digital native” while reading through a job description? While the ageism here isn’t overt, it indicates that the company is looking for an employee who grew up using computers and other technology. That means all Baby Boomers and many Gen Xers are out of luck. Of course, you don’t need to be born with an iPad in your hand to be good with technology, but that phrase can discourage older candidates from even applying.

Job Advertising and Ageism

Facebook recently settled a lawsuit that alleged that their job posting service allowed companies to discriminate on the basis of age. When posting a job, recruiters could target specific demographics, and while it makes sense to limit your search to local candidates, it was discriminatory to have recruiters set boundaries around age.

If the recruiter set an age range of 25-40 years old, and you were 45, you would never see the job posting.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act doesn’t prohibit discrimination against younger workers, only those over 40 years old.

“Years of Experience” Is a Type of Ageism

You might think that having many years of experience is an advantage for older candidates looking for their next job. But when companies say 7-10 years of experience rather than 7+ years of experience, they eliminate candidates who have more experience and are, therefore, older. This is often done to eliminate any candidates who the hiring manager may deem “out of place” in company culture, due to their age and level of expertise.

Stereotyping: Ageism in Action

Managers looking for “new” and “fresh” ideas sometimes assume that those can only come from younger employees. People who are 50+ years of age are often thought of as more traditional when it comes to their work ethic. Because of that, a company may feel it needs to inject some “fresh blood” into the organization, meaning younger employees with newer ideas and strategies.

Stereotyping can also affect people’s perception of behavior. If you make a typo at age 25, one would likely assume you were typing quickly and disregard the mistake. If you make a typo at age 50, you run the risk of “going downhill” in the eyes of your peers. The action is the same; the interpretation is different.

Targeted Layoffs Can Produce Ageism

When companies need to cut costs, they often choose to layoff employees. Naturally, older employees are paid higher salaries than younger employees, so there is a bit of logic when they’re the first to go.

However, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA) requires companies to provide disclosures to any employee over 40 who is involved in a group layoff. These disclosures state the ages and positions of the retained and terminated workers. They should also include details about the criteria used to pick employees for discharge. From this information, employees can see whether imbalances exist in the terminations and if there is an ageist trend in the company’s hiring and firing pattern.

The Bottom Line

Ageism is a very serious problem, especially in the workplace and job market. It’s not only illegal but when you reject or marginalize older workers, you inevitably miss out on many qualified and capable people. Some professions—like nursing and field service technicians—are struggling to find enough younger candidates to replace their older, retiring workforce. The current low employment rate also means that companies are severely limiting their possibilities if they have any reservations about hiring older workers.

Managers and Human Resources personnel need to ensure that they consider candidates and employees on their actual knowledge, skills, and abilities, ignoring age as a key factor. Keep your unconscious bias in check by using the test developed by HR expert, Kristen Pressner: “Flip it to test it.” If you wouldn’t say or do this to a younger employee, don’t do it to an older employee. 

Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.