“Too old?” Combating workplace ageism

When JK Scheinberg applied for a position at the Genius Bar, he was sure he’d land the job. Having led Apple’s shift from Mac to Intel processors, the 54-year-old engineer figured that providing tech support to customers would be a good fit for him post-retirement. He wasn’t deterred by the fact that he was twice as old as anyone else at the group interview. But what he didn’t expect was hesitation on the part of the interviewers, who didn’t get back to him immediately, despite promising, “We’ll be in touch.”

Scheinberg’s experience points to widespread and worrying biases against older workers at every stage of employment, from hiring to promotion and dismissal. A study by the AARP found that 61% of adults aged 45 and above have experienced or seen age discrimination at work. While age discrimination generally begins to affect workers in their forties, in some countries, it sets in even earlier. In China, recruitment ads regularly exclude workers aged 35 and above, with corporations laying off workers once the “Curse of 35” sets in. 

Globally, a survey of more than 83,000 people in 57 countries showed that one in every two people held moderately or highly ageist attitudes. Such stereotypes and prejudices based purely on chronological age simply do not hold up under closer scrutiny. Yet, age discrimination continues to present itself in many forms, both “hard” and “soft”

  • Hard discrimination mirrors legally prohibited types of behaviours. For instance, a recruiter might discard applications based on a candidate’s year of graduation, or a previously high-performing employee may receive an unusually poor performance appraisal upon reaching retirement age, leading to dismissal.
  • Many of us might also have witnessed soft discrimination, which usually takes place in the interpersonal sphere—jokes about “Boomers” failing to keep up with Internet trends, or older workers being excluded from team gatherings.

The problem 

Age discrimination is a problem with widespread ramifications, extending beyond individual employees and jobseekers, to corporations and the economy at large. Here’s what research has found: 

Who’s at risk? 

All this does not bode well for a world that is rapidly ageing. Thanks to increased life expectancy and declining birth rates around the world, the number of persons aged 60 and over is projected to more than double by 2050. In Asia and the Pacific alone, this number could surge to 1.3 billion

In other words, the majority of us will likely, at some point of time in our lives, experience age discrimination. 

The case for age diversity 

With more of us getting older and staying in the workplace for longer, eliminating ageism should stand as a priority for companies seeking to tap on a wider talent pool. Embracing an age-diverse workforce allows organisations to leverage on the unique contributions of each employee, boosting overall performance. 

 In fact, research has shown that age diversity is positively correlated to performance when groups are involved in complex decision-making tasks. When cross-generational teams with complementary abilities, skills, information, and networks collaborate on a project, their differing perspectives contribute to cognitive diversity and innovation. 

Older workers also bring to the table a wealth of knowledge and experience, driving better team outcomes and dispelling assumptions about age. For example, while we might associate the “entrepreneurial spirit” with youth, those over 40 are in fact three times more likely to start successful companies. Studies have also shown that older workers use fewer sick days than their younger counterparts, countering the myth that ageing diminishes productivity.

So, what next?

Combating ageism in the workplace calls for a multi-pronged approach—addressing prejudices to foster a more inclusive culture, creating opportunities for cross-generational mentorship and collaboration, and offering programmes and flexible arrangements to tap on the capabilities of workers of all ages. 

Here’s what your organisation can do: 

  • Review company policies and practices to nip age discrimination in the bud. This could mean conducting an audit to examine the age profile of employees and whether this correlates with, for instance, how appraisals are conducted, or how stretch assignments are allocated. Identifying gaps in the system where age-related biases affect older workers is the first step in creating better frameworks for support and inclusion.
  • Train leaders, people managers, and staff to weed out unconscious biases. Ensure that all members of the team are cognisant of the problem and prepared to call out and address ageist attitudes and behaviours. Emphasise the company’s zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination and harassment during employee onboarding, for instance, and eliminate generational labels in everyday language. 
  • De-bias recruitment practices. Rely on a structured interview process and eliminate unnecessary questions. Job advertisements should also avoid potentially age-discriminatory terms (“digital native”, “tech-savvy generation”, “youthful hustle culture”), and instead focus on specific skills and experiences. 
  • Implement mixed-age mentoring initiatives. Create opportunities for older and younger workers to interact and exchange ideas and skills. Such programmes may help to challenge negative stereotypes about older workers’ competencies and reduce the risk of ingroups forming. 
  • Ensure that training and development opportunities are open to workers of all ages. For example, upskilling and reskilling programmes could be made available for those re-entering the workforce after a long absence. 
  • Create age-friendly workplace conditions. For instance, in physically demanding roles, ergonomic adjustments and technological solutions can maintain the productivity of older workers. Flexible work arrangements and part time job options could also help to take into account different capacities. 

Change doesn’t happen overnight. But with the right commitment to understanding and addressing age discrimination in the workplace, your organisation stands to reap the benefits of a better engaged, more highly-skilled and productive workforce. By ensuring that all members are valued for their unique contributions and empowered to excel, your team primes itself for success.