ageism in the workplace

Have you experienced ageism in the workplace? Frustrating isn’t it!

Maybe you’ve been working in the same industry for 20+ years and it’s time for something new, maybe you’ve had several career transitions in your earlier years but none since then, maybe you are witnessing a lot of companies hiring younger candidates, maybe you feel that some of your key skills are kind of rusty. For whatever reason, as your heart is telling you it’s time to make a career change, your brain jumps in to remind you of your age.

It’s easy to accept a defeatist view about getting older, especially if you’ve experienced being treated as less capable the older your appearance suggests you are. But let’s get openly honest here. Ageism is not age specific. 

It’s experienced across the age spectrum with both older and younger candidates feeling like they are misunderstood. Ageism is more commonly talked about with reference to the way older candidates are treated, but younger candidates feel discriminated about a lack of sufficient knowledge or work experience, for example.

The fact is that age is not a barrier to work performance. Decades of research into cognitive neuroscience has shown that the human brain is capable of learning new things and maintains its performance capabilities as it ages through a process called neuroplasticity. There is no evidence showing that older individuals are any less effective or energetic than their younger co-workers. It’s just that many older individuals could be better at positioning themselves to be hired, promoted and treated equally in the workplace. 

So why does ageism happen?

A study on eradicating ageism (Levy 2001) found that ageism can operate without the acting individual’s awareness and in the form of self-stereotypes.

Let me give you an example to illustrate. If an employer isn’t aware that they hold a negative stereotype about aging after interviewing an older candidate, they are likely to attribute their choice NOT to hire him/her to some other reason that better fits their preferred self-image as reasonably fair individual. So rather than acknowledge that they hired a younger person in preference to an older person, they would provide a rationalization such as the older applicant’s personality or training.

The most interesting thing about holding stereotypes about aging is that they are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same study showed that older individuals who are exposed to negative age stereotypes tend to demonstrate worse memory performance, self-efficacy, and will-to-live. 

To put it in simpler terms, the way that people treat you as you get older doesn’t merely reflect the aging of your face and body; it also influences the way you actually age.

And then when these aging responses are observed by younger individuals, there is a risk that the observations will confirm negative age stereotypes and lead to this perpetual cycle of ageist acts.

Can ageism be overcome? Eradicated? 

The research on ageism without awareness and aging self-stereotypes suggests a need to be concerned about the multiple ways in which negative ageism infiltrates into our own thinking and behaviors. 

That said, the way to overcome ageism is to look for evidence in the contrary. In other words, evidence that disproves the beliefs that form the foundation of ageism. And evidence that proves how ageism is damaging the workplace on both ends of the age spectrum. Here are a few:

  • While millennials often have greater tech skills and are easily adaptable to changing technologies, boomers and Gen Ys are technically savvy.
  • More seasoned generations bring valuable life and business wisdom, and the resiliency to weather the unprecedented pace of change. 
  • We not only have to fill gaps with candidates that can fulfill the present job function, but with an uncertain future, we need to find candidates who can roll with the punches. This is less about age and more about personality.
  • We all have a desire to grow, learn, explore and develop personally and professionally regardless of age. 
  • Respect, leverage and learn from each other’s talent. Adapt the more constructive worldview that this is the age of experience, and both ends of the spectrum have much to offer.

The key to successful aging is to resist ageism and ageist messages we’re exposed to almost constantly. Knowing that ageism and self-stereotypes are a perpetual cycle, learn to feel optimistic about aging. The better you feel about getting older, the healthier you will actually become. 

Challenge your own assumptions about age. Don’t fall into the trap of saying “I’m having a senior moment.” For example, if you attribute a slight memory lapse to something ominous going on in your brain, that will lead you and others to see you as less than mentally capable. 

There are 5 things you can do immediately to overcome ageism.

  1. Think about and get ready for the changes that might affect your life as you age. By confronting reality, you’ll be able to tap more effectively into proactive adapting. 
  2. Make sure you’re up to speed on new technologies in your industry. You’ll stimulate your brain and also defy the ageist stereotypes that older individuals can’t learn new tricks. PRO TIP: Share your social media profiles publicly so an employer can see that you’re comfortable with the technology. If there are other platforms, apps, or programs that are used in your field, be proficient in those as well.
  3. Don’t let your age become an issue, but if someone else makes it into one, then be prepared to speak up. Don’t make your age an issue. Try not to bring it up in the conversation, and certainly don’t be self-conscious or self-deprecating about your age. However, if you’re in a selection or promotion process, and you’re getting cues that age may be an issue, be prepared to deal with it. Make sure the people you’re talking to understand that you do not believe age is an issue. Divert the conversation back to your experience and how it is an asset, not a liability.
  4. Be strategic while you are seeking a new career direction, a new job function, or a promotion. Focus on job experiences that expose your flexibility, adaptability and success working and guiding teams. Highlight examples where you’ve been an agile learner, or where you’ve adapted to change, or how you contributed to business results, or how you used technology to create a specific outcome. Tell your career stories about more recent events and achievements to demonstrate your wisdom and wealth of experience.
  5. Build connections across the multitude of generations that exist in your industry. Creating multi-generational networks will build a community with unique experiences, knowledge, and perspectives. 

Comment below, have you experienced ageism in your career journey?

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