Companies benefit with diversity strategies that counter age discrimination
In 1968, Carl Bernstein, a young reporter at The Washington Post, interviewed Dr. Robert N. Butler, a prominent gerontologist and psychiatrist, about community resistance to a moderate-income housing development in Chevy Chase, Md.
Butler had recently been involved in a decade-long, major research study on aging directed by the National Institute of Mental Health, based in Bethesda, Md. During that interview, Butler said he was struck “by the parallel to sexism and racism in terms of negative attitudes toward age.” He told Bernstein: “You know, it’s really an outrage. It’s like racism, it’s ageism.”
That’s how the term “ageism” emerged. And now, more than 50 years later, the term is still relevant – in fact, the concept has generated more widespread familiarity than ever before.
As for Butler, he became the founding director of the National Institute on Aging. He long advocated for Americans to recognize the deep capacity of older citizens to contribute to the betterment of society. His 1975 book, “Why Survive? Being Old in America,” made the case for this vision. The book also garnered Butler a Pulitzer Prize in 1976. He subsequently authored other books, including “The Longevity Revolution” (2008) and “The Longevity Prescription: The 8 Proven Keys to a Long, Healthy Life” (2010).
Age discrimination escalating
Ageism in the workplace continues to be a significant issue. Gitnux, an online resource for digital topics related to software, marketing and business management, reported several months ago that 75 percent of adults, age 60 and over, view their age as “a disadvantage when looking for work.” And, for adults, 45 to 59, 65 percent have the same opinion.
Also, according to Gitnux, close to 80 percent of older employees say “they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.”
The numbers are even higher in the results of an online study that AARP conducted during the past few years, when the pandemic was at its height. Among adults, 50 and over, 91 percent said age discrimination is common in the workplace. And, one in six adults believed they were not hired for a job because of their age.
Age-related discrimination has been an escalating problem throughout the different stages of the pandemic. More than 20 million people lost their jobs in April 2020, when its onset led to the country’s first wave of shutdowns. Along with the surge in jobs lost, the rate of hiring – especially for older workers – slowed sharply. This accentuated an already existing problem for older workers; namely, they tend to have longer stretches of unemployment compared to others in the workforce.
“Age bias plays a leading role in the higher levels of long-term unemployment experienced by older job seekers,” said Jennifer Schramm, a senior policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute, in a 2022 article that AARP published on its website about age-related employment issues during the pandemic. “Age discrimination,” she added, “continues to be one of the main drivers of higher levels of long-term unemployment after age 50.”
Seven workplace myths
Age discrimination in the workplace goes well beyond hiring and firing issues. It shows up in a number of popular myths about older workers. Ashton Applewhite, who wrote “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism” (2016), identified seven of them. (Though her book came out seven years ago, her points are still valid.) According to these myths, older workers:
- can’t learn new skills
- are not creative
- can’t handle stress
- slow things down
- miss days because of illness
- can’t handle physical demands
- are already burnt-out
Applewhite went on in her book to show why each of these beliefs are misguided and not consistent with documented research data.
Using diversity to strengthen
When it comes to dispelling myths about older workers, it’s vital for management to set an appropriate workplace tone.
One factor to consider for achieving this is how companies manage groups of workers who are from different generations. Harvard Review highlighted this topic with a research article in 2022 – “Harnessing the Power of Age Diversity” – that addressed the inherent conflict of a workplace in which, for the first time, five generations are present: the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z.
The tensions that can arise in such situations often lead to negative performance levels among employees and for their companies. It doesn’t have to happen, though, say the article’s authors.
The problem is that “organizations don’t take steps to address generational issues. While companies have recently renewed their diversity efforts, only 8 percent of organizations include age as part of their DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) strategy.”
To sum up, the authors say, “Age-diverse teams are valuable because they bring together people with complementary abilities, skills, information and networks.” Effective management of these kind of teams will lead to improved decision-making, collaboration and overall performance. The caveat here is that team members must be “willing to share and learn from their differences.”
So, how does a company know that it’s time to implement DEI planning.?
Ashton Applewhite, in her chapter about ageism in the workplace, referenced a telling diversity test that company managers can use. “Look under the table, and if everyone’s wearing the same kind of shoes, you’ve got a problem.”