Age may be nothing but a number as we tell ourselves that we’re only as old as we feel, but ageism’s impact on the office is a real issue in the office. About 35 percent of the U.S. population is 50 or older, according to AARP (Association of American Retired Persons), and workers of a “certain age” are staying at work longer than ever. Multi-generation workplaces are standard but that doesn’t mean that all generations are valued the same.
What does ageism look like?
Ageism can take form in several ways with some more subtle than others, much like other kinds of discrimination. It can look like a hiring decision where older applicants are considered of lesser quality due to the presumption of being near retirement age or not having relevant experience. Within a department, a manager may provide key projects with high visibility to younger team members over older ones.
In everyday experiences at work, discrimination against older workers may include derogatory comments about their age and experience; lack of accessibility for limitations related to info processing, vision or hearing, or mobility issues; poor performance reviews with little to no evidence; and limitations on salary during tenure.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) “forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older.” Despite this Act, which passed in 1967, instances of ageism are fairly common, with 3 in 5 older workers saying they’ve experienced age discrimination in the workplace, according to an AARP survey. Not only does this impact the individual and their mental health but it also creates a limit to the capabilities of a company who fails to hire or promote older employees.
In the current global economic climate, having knowledgeable and experienced teams matters more than ever.
Ageism and the pandemic
Millions of people have been furloughed or lost their jobs as the pandemic due to COVID-19, and coronavirus infections and deaths are disproportionately impacting older Americans. As industries across the board continue to shed jobs, and the jobs that have staying power continue to be work from home, older workers are at risk of potentially being let go. They’re also possibly affected by the digital divide, depending on the availability of high-speed internet in their area, and may be left behind by technology and tools used to facilitate working from home.
Essential work, including at grocery stores and with delivery, exposes employees to the risk of contracting coronavirus or unknowingly infecting someone else if they’re asymptomatic. Some corporations are failing to provide workers with protective equipment, hand sanitizer or hazard pay, putting older workers at a disadvantage.
A different AARP report noted that people aged 65 or older made up the fastest growing portion of the U.S. workforce, and those over 55 filled more than half of new jobs in 2018. Now the numbers have shifted dramatically, and coronavirus is likely the largest to blame: Unemployment for Americans over 55 went from 3.3 percent to 13.6 percent between March and April 2020. A senior economist quoted in the report on the unemployment rate affirmed one way that age discrimination can play out; as companies look to cut costs, older workers, who tend to make more due to seniority in a company and industry tenure, are targeted for layoffs and furloughs.
Long-term effects of ageism on workplace culture
The current outlook is not the V-shaped recovery of previous recessions, in which there is a short-term dip followed by a steep recovery in GDP, despite what economists and politicians may hope. Without a vaccine or treatment for the highly contagious coronavirus, physical distancing is likely to continue. Surveys bear this out, with a majority of Americans supporting stay-at-home restrictions.
The likely economic recovery is U-shaped, with a longer period of decline in the GDP, slow recovery and the possibility that the economy may not return to previous historic success in the markets. With the country continuing to shed jobs and no clear timeline for economic recovery, older workers are facing a challenging outlook. Even when hiring in affected industries begins to recover, this group will find the same discrimination in hiring, pay and retention, unless ageism is acknowledged and leaders actively implement policies to ensure all candidates are fairly considered, no matter their age.
If you have experienced ageism since the pandemic reached the United States, your voice is needed as a Kanarys community member. Create an account, rate and review the company where you work/worked, and then find others to connect within the Kanarys Forums.