While a multi-generation workforce has its challenges, ageism should not be one of them

Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century grappling with fears of “senioritis” in the workforce as if it were a gnarly disease.  Seriously? It’s crazy to think ageism as a real thing in a time when discrimination has been turned on its head by diversity and inclusion. Yet age bias seems to have slipped through the cracks. It affects seasoned employees. It affects young entrants. It affects all ages in between.

For starters take a look at professional sports. Athletes are pretty much-considered dinosaurs by the time they hit their mid-thirties. And even though ageism has been illegal in the U.S. since the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was passed in 1967, the Act itself is suspect. While it “protects certain applicants and employees from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s age,” only workers who are at least 40 years old are allowed to file a claim under the ADEA. Go figure.

In Canada, CBC  recently reported how a father and son who lost their jobs at a Vancouver company on the same day allege they are both the victims of age discrimination — one for being too young and the other too old. The father says he was called “old man,” the son “kid,” and both allege their ages were factors when they were fired.

Stereotype descriptions of Millennials and GenZs paint pictures of unreliable, difficult to manage people with low interpersonal skills that fuel reluctance to hire from these groups.

In the academic paper Work Environment and the Origin of Ageism, authors Laura Naegele, Wouter De Tavernier and Moritz Hess point to how the difference between an individual’s age and what is considered ‘normal’ for a certain function can be a basis for age discrimination. Individuals working in high tech can find themselves considered ‘old’ in their early 40s, while a judge may only reach that point 20 or 30 or 40 years later.

ageism - tech

Media has a big hand in shaping perceptions of ageism. Unfortunately, the very industries that make up this sector, including marketing and advertising and communications departments and agencies, are rife with ageism.

The Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA), the professional association for Canadian advertising, marketing, and public relations firms, surveyed more than 4,000 agency employees between November 2017 and January 2018. Results reported by CBC found that 40 percent of people working in the sector are between 20 and 30 years old. Just 15 percent of agency employees are between 40 and 50, and only 10 per cent are 51 or older. “Compare that with the latest Statistics Canada Labor Force Survey, which found that workers age 50 and over make up 33 percent of the national workforce,” writes Laura MacNaughton.

According to a similar 2017 survey in the U.S., says Libby DeLana for US Campaign the average age of employees in all media, advertising and marketing member agencies is 33.7 and has remained so since 2009.

“This isn’t all to say young people are thriving in the industry,” DeLana suggests. “The ageism problem runs both ways. For recent graduates who are just starting out, demanding schedules and high-pressure work environments are pervasive, as young employees are more likely to be perceived as being untiring and tenacious. Without the responsibilities of things like family and mortgages, their equally important need for work-life balance is often overlooked. Young employees are often shut out of the creative process as well, with little to no say in decision-making around creative and strategy.”

Corporate law departments aren’t much better. According to Jill Switzer, an active member of the State Bar of California for 40 years, “One of the concerns that in-house departments have with hiring younger or even newbie lawyers (and we’ll assume for the sake of discussion that these are lawyers in their 20s or early to mid-30s) is whether they have the emotional intelligence and maturity needed for in-house jobs. In her submission to Above the Law, Switzer observes that even though newbies may offer more energy, senior lawyers are hired because they can hit the ground running (or hobbling on a cane or even using a walker) and give thoughtful, grounded advice from the outset.

ageism - experience business person

Does the young attorney have the ability to push back, to tell a client that a course of conduct is misguided or flat-out illegal?  Does the newbie or younger attorney have the life experience to be able to push back discreetly but firmly? Switzer asks. “It’s not easy; it can be uncomfortable and downright confrontational, (thoughts of “will I lose my job?”), but it has to be done.”

Then there’s the matter of age as it relates to childbearing years.

A survey done on behalf of the U.S. Equality and Human Rights Commission took a look at managers’ attitudes around pregnancy and maternity discrimination. A third (36%) of private-sector employers agreed that it is reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children in the future during recruitment and, would rather employ a man in his 20s or 30s over a woman of the same age. A survey of 500 managers by law firm Slater & Gordon showed that more than 40% admitted they are generally wary of hiring a woman of childbearing age. That begs the question: what about professional white-collar men? They’re entitled to paternity leave. Will this age bias eventually spill over to them too? And how will age bias turn up for people in their 40s and 50s who take compassion leave to care for a frail, failing parent?

While a multi-generation workforce has its challenges, ageism should not be one of them. What can be done to change ageist thought?  In an opinion piece for AdAge, 59 year old Cindy Gallop, the former chairman of BBH New York, a consultant, and founder/CEO of IfWeRanTheWorld offers a few suggestions of her own alongside those of others.

Encourage people to own their age and to share that number with pride. “You are the sum total of all your learnings and life experiences. Your age represents your value. It’s what makes you as special and unique as you are.”

The future of work is hybrid, Gallop states. “That means we have a future that’s comprised of the fresh perspectives of youth plus the experience and expertise of age. Create cross-generational work interactions at every opportunity. Keep hierarchical structures flat. Put the youngest person on the team in charge of leading the team. Bring in older/more experienced people to be part of, not in charge of a team.”

ageism - young manager

Come up with new, creative terminology. For instance, refer to seasoned employees as experts.

Hire experts – It’s the biggest growth driver for organizations. Identify upcoming employee gaps (parental leave; sabbaticals; vacations; sick leave) or short-term opportunities and actively look to fill them with expert candidates.

There’s a plethora of 30 Under 30 lists—and you absolutely want to celebrate and highlight younger talent. But it’s time to showcase the expert talent, the mid-career talent and the younger talent across your organizations, in your industries and professions, in your local communities. Create lists or events or other inspirational avenues that celebrate 50 over 50, 40 under 40, and so on.

PWC’s 17th Annual Global CEO survey: Talent Trends 2019 found 79 percent of CEOs worldwide are concerned that skill gaps could threaten their growth prospects. Create apprenticeship and returnship opportunities. While many young people are pursuing four-year degrees to provide job security, just as many are dropping out. In fact, The Atlantic reports almost half of all youth aged 18 to 24 in the U.S., about 15 million, are not in school and unemployed. However, studies show that students who enter the workforce early are far more likely to secure better, high-paying jobs later in life. Take a page from Barclay’s. This British multinational investment bank and financial services company offers real skills training, fair pay, and real career options through their Apprenticeship program. They help people find the right direction. Anyone can be a Foundation Apprentice: 18 or 85, a parent, a school drop-out, ex-military, unemployed, writes Amy Elisa Jackson for Glassdoor.

Ask for input. Conduct a thoughtful engagement survey along with frequent pulse surveys to better understand the different ages and attitudes, needs and expectations represented in your workforce. Actively listen to the voices of your employees and demonstrate you hear their thoughts, ideas and concerns with follow up actions.

And lastly remind leaders and employees that creativity, innovation, and motivation are at their best when there’s diversity in the workforce – including age diversity.

Additional Resources

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