The High Cost of Ageism in the Workplace

By Leah Kinthaert


In a New York Times article late last year, Marci Alboher described the situation that many older Americans are finding themselves in: “I hear a lot from people over 50, even over 45, who are doing all the right things but still not finding successful midlife transitions. Ageism is rampant — and internalized, with midlifers questioning our own ability to succeed in a world where youth is prized. And while there are many new offerings to help people make late-career transitions, moving into an encore career still requires an immense amount of creativity and persistence.” The evidence is not just anecdotal – new research from ProPublica and the Urban Institute “shows more than half of older U.S. workers are pushed out of longtime jobs before they choose to retire, suffering financial damage that is often irreversible as statistically older workers are “substantially less likely to be re-employed” than younger ones. An AARP study from last year found that “nearly 2 out of 3 workers ages 45 and older have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job”; additionally, research using data from 40,000 job applications from the US National Bureau of Economic Research showed that women face considerably more age discrimination than men.

Older Americans and their families are being set up for a major economic crises. Paolo Narciso, of AARP Foundation described the situation in a recent podcast “Only about 25% of the US population has $250,000 or more saved up for retirement.” The number $250,000 might not seem too bad until you remember that Americans live for an average of 20 years after retirement, sometimes of course much longer. That’s $12,500 a year to live on before taxes for the top 25% richest retired Americans! According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, one in five workers will be 55 and older. It’s clear that institutionalized ageism is going to cause dire problems for a whole generation of professional people in their 40s and 50s right now who expected to work into their 60s or 70s.

Older professionals are not the only group who will lose – the brain drain that is ultimately happening simply cannot be good for companies. Nicole Galluci had this to say in The Globe and Mail last year: “At one time, I worried about a glass ceiling; I now evaluate whether a glass floor exists, run by a younger generation who – in the adrenalin rush of the new – lose sight of the value of business experience, which can help to weather the highs and lows caused by ‘always new’ and ‘always on’.” Taking a whole generation that has “experienced a multitude of business models” out of the workforce is sure to have negative results.

I checked in with nine experts on the topic of ageism in the workforce to ask them if they had any advice on how older professionals can cope if they have been passed over for promotions or demoted, experienced layoffs, been forced to retire, or experienced anything that seemed to be designed to push them to quit. Here’s what they had to say:

 

Neil Milliken, Head of Accessibility & Digital Inclusion, Atos, @NeilMilliken

“If my memory serves me correctly, the average age that ageism kicks in is 43 according to Steve Anderson of the Age Diversity Forum. What we are seeing in tech is a cult of youth that precludes people from recognising the value of older employees or founders. Not only do you find people unable to get jobs because of ageism, entrepreneurs trying to get funding find it harder as well. It doesn’t matter if older startup founders are more experienced or have better ideas, investors tend to prefer young upstarts.”

“As far as ageism in the C-Suite, I think it is easier for older people to get jobs in the C-Suite, as the C-Suite is generally older. However as you mentioned Globally upper and mid management is always looking for cost management, there are big efforts towards ‘juniorization’. Additionally age and disability are interrelated, as people tend to acquire disabilities as they age giving those individuals a twofold blow.”

“At Atos we’ve got five generations in our workforce right now. We are developing a response to what we’re anticipating to be a massive ‘brain drain’ in the tech sector as a whole generation of skilled and experienced workers is retiring soon. We’re working on programs such as reverse mentoring, and ‘phased’ retirement.”

“Gartner tells us that the disability market is worth 8 trillion dollars, so ignoring or slighting that market – having products or services that are not accessible to those individuals and their immediate families – will hit organizations’ pocketbooks.”

 

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Author, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People & Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis @gullette_mm

“It is simply unfair, and cruel, to expect people who have experienced age discrimination in the workforce to solve this bias on their own. One by one, alone.”

“It’s a bit like telling other victims, ‘Start now to try being less black. . . . less disabled. . . less Jewish.’ Passing-for-younger is futile, and internally painful.”

“Ageism, racism, ableism: These societal problems can be combatted only by leaders willing to name the perpetrators, and describe the forces that produce victimization.”

“Midlife workers have expertise and historical memory, values any agewise HR director recognizes. But a capitalist society based on neoliberal scarcity favors the race to the bottom in wages. The powerful cult of youth means younger people are called–echoing 1930s fascist rhetoric—’young blood’.  That blood quickly becomes ‘too old’. In Silicon Valley, 35 may be too old. Middle ageism leads to hidden unemployment, psychological stress, a crisis of family life and public health.”

“Remedies? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is left cannily understaffed. The Supreme Court has ruled against midlife workers. It is up to Congress to cure the middle-ageist epidemic destroying the American life course and every generation’s future hopes–the saddest of epidemics because it is so far-reaching, and so unnecessary.”

 

Lexy Martin, Principal of Research & Customer Value, Visier, @lexymartin

“For individuals, it’s about maintaining self-confidence in your competence and passion for your activities. If you don’t love your job, perhaps you should consider another. But if you do, show it, and, if I’m any indication, you can continue to work for as long as you want.”

Martin offered some positive data on the situation for older tech workers from her company Visier’s report, ‘The Truth About Ageism in the Tech Industry’: “although there is ageism occurring in hiring practices, older workers are actually more highly valued, in terms of performance, as they enter what we call the ‘Tech Sage Age’, from age 40 onwards. They do not resign at higher rates or experience a unique drop in salary.”

 

Ashton Applewhite, Principal, This Chair Rocks, Author, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism @thischairrocks

“The notion that ageism only affects older people is incorrect. Ageism is any judgement on the basis of age. It cuts both ways— you’re ‘too young’ as well as ‘too old’— and it casts a shadow across our entire lives. It’s often cast as an old vs. young issue, but that’s the wrong way to look at it – we are all in this together, and longer lives are here to stay. Ageism is prejudice against our future selves. The most important thing that people of all ages can do is look at our attitudes towards age and aging. We live in a deeply ageist culture, a youth obsessed culture. What can you do about this right now? If you walk into a meeting and everyone is the same age, why not call it out unless there’s a really good reason for it? We know diverse companies are more profitable. Do your company’s Diversity & Inclusion efforts include age bias? Only a tiny minority of companies do. Ask your HR team if they think of age as criteria for diversity. If not, ask ‘why not?’”

“We know that over half of workers over age 50 do not leave their jobs of their own volition, according to a recent ProPublica study. That’s shocking. If older people are forced out of the workplace, how will we support ourselves? The longer lives that await almost all of us require working longer and saving more. Businesses also pay a price by losing all of these experienced people. It’s crazy to have to point out that experience should not be a liability for employers.”

“Nothing is going to change without a grassroots movement to raise awareness of ageism and to mobilize against it, just as the women’s movement changed the position of women all around the world. Consciousness raising was the tool that catalyzed the women’s movement. Download Who Me, Ageist? from my website and start a group. If you have the power to hire, conduct anti-bias training and make sure age is part of it. If you think you’re a victim of ageism in the workplace, take notes, network, file claims, and organize. Contact the EEOC, ACLU, AARP, local legislators and local news outlets. If we shut up and take it nothing changes.”

 

Nicole Galluci, Co-Founder ALTR Inc, Author, Professor, George Brown College;  @NicoleGalluci

“Your ask actually came at a very interesting time for me as I just made an unexpected career change. Ageism was not the reason however given my age it did make me wonder the challenges I would face.”

“The generation of professionals that is now fifty and over pretty much followed an expected trajectory: got post secondary education, got married, bought homes, had kids. They did not evaluate if they loved their jobs, they were focused on creating families. They saw their parents hold down jobs for twenty plus years and assumed they would do the same.”

“Today baby boomers and older Generation X individuals have millennial children who are often still around – causing financial stress. And who are pushing to find work they are passionate about. Modern culture is focused on ‘being happy’.”

“A fifty-something year old has worked hard, sustained a career, created a life and lifestyle that still requires a degree of money to sustain and now they are increasingly unexpectedly unemployed and potentially perceived to be unemployable vs a younger person.”

“I think within the next 10 years a few things are going to happen: Governments will increase the age of retirement to seventy or seventy-five; Policies will be put in place that reflect a requirement for a certain percentage of your workforce to be 50+; There will be a realization that there is a wisdom among elders. Youth certainly brings some huge advantages to the table – especially since they are the native tech generation – but what they lack as they try to run these companies is the wisdom to know how to scale, manage people, manage finances and build for growth.”

“So, what can a fifty plus year old do until then? Check in on your savings and plan very prudently; Do a check in on what you LOVE to do and now WANT to do – I actually created a program called DIY dream plans for students I teach at George Brown and am now finding that older folks need it; Sell your skills and talents to start-ups – or create your own; Teach – at the college and or university level – they need to hear about your real world experience; Write/Build…do what you always wanted to do but have been holding back.”

“Take the advice you would give. As a C-Suiter you have given tons of advice and helped so many – now is the time to actually give yourself some much needed wisdom. Some of this advice might be: Focus on your health – not being healthy when you have had an active mind is terrible – so start doing whatever it takes; When you put your ego aside there are lots of jobs out there that keep you active and earn an Income. Give up on keeping up with the Jones’ we were the generation that focused on keeping up with Jones’ and it was painful… and did it work?”

“Now we have the wisdom to keep up with ourselves and do what we want downsize, make life easier, invest your money and finally do what YOU LOVE. If you have the financial means, settle into this new state and volunteer, help others you. You can now focus on helping to truly make the world a better place – which is awesome! In addition the hobbies you love are now sometimes skilled labour and there is a huge shortage – consider that as an alternative. Lastly, keep going – don’t throw in the towel. Take a pause, regroup, assess and then figure out a plan.”

“The truth is that ageism has pushed retirement to 50 vs 65. It’s insane actually. Face the challenge head on – you have much to share so find your tribe and confidently share!”

 

Katherine Bryant, Executive Coach & Consultant; @Katherine_Coach

“Older professionals need not question their ability succeed or fear finding a new role if they focus on 3 key things:

Maintain a growth mindset. Lifelong learning is critical in this fast-changing world. A UK study tells us that employees aged 50-64 years are less likely to participate in training than employees aged 18-49 years old. Stay up to date with changes in your sector, advances in technology and ways of working so you can ensure that your knowledge and skills are relevant and valuable. Be willing to work differently too, embrace flexibility as it can enhance your work life and appeal to your current, or potential, employer.”

“Put aside any ego attached to title. Career paths are no longer linear so don’t assume that to progress you must move into your boss’s shoes. Consider lateral moves to develop your knowledge and where you can apply your transferrable skills. If you are seeking a new role, don’t limit yourself to a ‘like for like’ title (especially at C level) as this greatly reduces your options, instead focus on seeking a role you will enjoy & where you can add value with your experience.”

“Develop your professional network. It’s easy to let this slip as you become comfortable in a career but it’s critical to build and nurture a broad and diverse group of connections. They will not only be able to keep you appraised of opportunities but also vouch for you, as you can them.”

 

Charlotte Japp, Founder, Cirkel; @charlottejapp

“Getting laid off is particularly distressing for someone who is advanced in their career. Midlife layoffs challenge the traditional notion of getting more respect, compensation, and power with age and experience.”

“It’s crucial for older workers to apply the same open-minded approach to getting a new job as junior-level workers do when starting out. I have a friend in his fifties who was laid off from a C-suite job. He did what everyone in that situation should: he met with younger people working in the industry to pick their brain, read up on the latest trends like VR/AR, and improved his tech skills. Stay curious, ask questions, and reevaluate the next move – it might be different than what you expected.”

“The silver lining to the problem of ageism is that it allows people over 50 to reinvent themselves. We’re seeing the idea of an ‘encore career’, where workers over 50 are trying jobs in totally new industries or starting their own companies. In fact, recent startups launched by people over 50 have the highest success rates.”

 

Steve Anderson,CEO, The Age Diversity Forum; @DiversityAge

“Some people say that older workers need to just face up and take responsibility to ensure they are employable. And yes, of course there is a degree of truth in that statement, but overcoming any type of discriminatory bias, will leave a scar on an individuals’ self-worth and well-being and as it is for disability, LGBT, gender and BAME, it is wrong, unjust and illegal to discriminate against age.”

“Individuals can take action to be retained in the work-place or establish a robust action plan when seeking a return to employment. Whilst in work, an older worker can improve their retention chances by clarifying the employers’ expectations, agreeing and setting objectives, and ensuring there is an adequate and progressive training and development route in place.”

“For those who are job searching, there are potentially more barriers to overcome. On being released by an employer, the older worker quite often has to go through a number of psychological phases before they are ready to re-enter the job search environment. There is the initial reaction of shock, followed by a realisation phase that is usually accompanied with anger and self-doubt.”

“But getting to the next phase, acceptance, is most important, as it allows the individual to think more clearly about their next life chapter. Achieving this zone will enable the individual to better manage their time, treat the search like a project, and set tasks and deadlines that keep the search on track.”

“It will also enable the individual to be open and honest with their immediate network of friends, colleagues and family. Sometimes, an individual will hide the loss of their job, so to avoid embarrassment or difficult questions. However, those closet to you want to help you the most, and this close personal network can prove to be the most valuable. It is still the case, that most new jobs are not actually advertised, rather they are identified and fulfilled by word of mouth and problem solving. For networking, I have a saying…’You have got to be ‘in-the-room’ …as you never know who you may meet and the opportunities that may come from it.”

“However, we know from our own Age Diversity Forum partner programme, that the group that can make the biggest positive impact for older workers are the Employers……Employers who provide equal opportunities for retention, re-skilling and recruitment…for all staff, whatever their age.”

 

Tauseef Rahman, Principal, Workforce Strategy & Analytics, Mercer; @Tauseef_R

“This is a tricky topic, as what on the surface could be viewed as displacement due to ageism, is really a shift away from a particular type of skill, or a move to a new way of working. It may be the case that older workers have skills which have become less valued. So, ensuring skills are continuously kept up to date is important. In today’s environment of constant change, we no longer live in a world of I learn, I do, I retire’ but rather in a world of ‘I learn, I do, I learn, I do’, and that learning may be either new skills or a new way of working.”

“Another challenging question is whether employers can be expected to provide the learning to help workers (older or otherwise) continuously gain and practice new skills. It’s important to be aware of what is happening in specific fields in terms of technological and methodological developments. If an employer doesn’t appear to be keeping up with the pace of change, it may be a sign for workers to learn new skills on their own and find a new employer where these more valuable skills will be used.”

“Another aspect for older workers to keep in mind are the benefits they provide that may be under-appreciated at times. Mercer’s continuing research on the impact of older workers in the workplace finds positive outcomes of having older workers on teams through enhanced team performance. There are benefits that older workers provide that don’t necessarily show up in their own performance, but rather in their team’s performance. The takeaway is that older workers should point to the contributions they make to overall team performance, and not just their own performance.”