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Editorial Team
20 Sep 2019

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Workplace diaries – Youth vs Ageism

From denial of promotions to embarrassing stereotypes, older employees at the workplace often get a hard deal. Is it time to stand up and take notice?

It seems the blues have truly hit Big Blue! As if declining sales and a seeming inability to keep up with the competition in cloud computing and other key segments of the IT industry were not enough, the IT biggie has been hit by a number of legal salvos alleging widespread ageism. IBM is alleged to have let off as many as 100,000 workers in recent years, with the purported reason being that the company had "transitioned to a less labor-intensive business model and have divested some of our operations." The number of IBM employees has gone down to its lowest in six years, standing at 350,600 across the globe in end-2018, and representing a 19% fall from that in 2013.

“We have reinvented IBM in the past five years to target higher-value opportunities for our clients,” IBM said in a statement. “The company hires 50,000 employees each year.”

The alleged reason, though, is quite different. IBM is said to have fired workers to fix its "seniority mix", concerned as it was about looking like “an old fuddy-duddy organization”. The company wished to appear cooler and trendier to incoming Gen Z and millennial workers; hence, the letting-go on such a wide scale.

What is ageism, though?

Fortunately, or unfortunately – depending on perspective – this case has brought to the fore the issue of ageism, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has characterized as “widespread and insidious”. WHO defines ageism as “the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age”.

Ageism is recognized as having harmful effects on the health of older adults and is a challenge that marginalizes and excludes them by:

  • Overlooking them for employment opportunities
  • Restricting them from social services
  • Stereotyping them in the media

It need not be explicit or overt, either. Ageism often bubbles under the surface, in the following forms:

  • Providing newer equipment, better leads, or more travel and training opportunities to the younger lot
  • Unflattering comments about the tech-savviness of older workers
  • Unofficial after-hours social events in which experienced employees are assumed to not be interested
  • Using words and expressions like “go-getter” and “high energy” in job descriptions

Is it common?

Surprisingly – or unsurprisingly – yes! A recent 2019 Fairygodboss poll of 1,000 people aged over 40 revealed that one in three of them experienced ageism before the age of 45. The said people also expressed a fear of being "pushed out" of their jobs at a significantly higher rate than those who had not been subject to ageism.

Other surveys point in the same direction. An AARP survey of 3,900 people aged 45 or over who were either employed or looking for work, threw up similar insights. Nearly two in three had seen or experienced ageism at work, and 91% of these two in three believed this discrimination was common. Other revealing stats from this survey are as follow:

  • 16% of respondents believe they did not get a job they applied for
  • 12% said they had been passed over for a promotion
  • 7% said they had been laid off, fired or forced out of a job
  • 76% felt they would need more than three months to find a new job
  • 33% of those expecting to lose their jobs over the next year felt their age made them vulnerable

Are older employees bad, then?

Far from it! These employees bring a lot of good stuff to the table, some of which is explained below:

  • They have good soft skills – such as being good with teamwork, collaboration, or writing well – developed through years of experience
  • Their experience with a variety of work situations makes them invaluable in terms of knowing how to tackle issues at work
  • Their immense knowledge base could be a great source of mentoring for the younger employees, setting the organization up for an even brighter future
  • Their know-how and opinions bring useful diversity to the workplace

What can be done about ageism?

Plenty, in fact. Legal enactments aside, employers can do a lot to prevent ageism, and some suggestions are given below:

  • Foster a work culture conducive to a multi-generational workplace letting all workers thrive, promoting their abilities and ridding itself of discrimination by way of stereotypes or inappropriate words
  • Recognize and reject ageist remarks, stereotypes, and assumptions, treating them the same way they would sex, race, disability, religion or other sensitive issues
  • Engaging, hiring and retaining employees of all ages will make the workforce more age-diverse
  • Train recruiters and interviewers to remove ageist assumptions and perceptions
  • Evaluate interview strategies to avoid age bias
  • Set up an age-diverse interview panel for prospective employees
  • Develop retention strategies to engage older workers

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the US, in fact, has a list of recommendations to increase the age-diversity of the workforce. These include:

  • Assessing organizational culture, practices, and policies for ageist assumptions
  • Examining recruitment practices to evaluate any prevalence of ageism, such as asking age-related questions in job applications, not having an age-diverse interview panel, or assuming that a younger worker will accept a lower salary
  • Incorporating a diversity and inclusion strategy at the workplace that gives due weight to age
  • Fostering a multigenerational culture placing supremacy on ability irrespective of age, with no place for ageist stereotypes

Last, but certainly not the least, employees can also take steps to ensure they do not fall to ageist beliefs or practices at their workplaces. Investing in their continued growth and development by being up to date on trends and best practices will make them hard to let go off for any reason. They should be comfortable with tech, welcome change, energetic at work, and ambitious in pursuing their goals, not using age as an excuse for anything. And finally, they ought to benchmark themselves in their professionalism with the best of their colleagues – younger or older – so that if not by legal stipulation, their excellence in caliber and on-the-job performance makes them impossible to let go of!

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