Reflecting on Ageism in the Workplace

“I still have music in me!”

Did you watch the movie The Intern? In this heartwarming comedy, former executive Ben (Robert de Niro) accepts a role as a “senior” intern at an e-commerce company led by young CEO Jules (Anne Hathaway). Throughout the movie, we see Ben lend his expertise, support, and unwavering professionalism to his new role, becoming invaluable to Jules as she navigates the complexity of business ownership and of life.

When you look at the numbers, Ben was very lucky to find this internship program that encouraged older applicants. Though statistics vary, jobseekers aged 50 and older are up to three times less likely to be selected for an interview than younger applicants. The interview process itself is filled with bias against older workers. Undefined, throwaway statements such as “we have a hip, high-energy culture” and “we need someone trainable” encourage the selection of younger candidates.

Once they have the job, older employees still face discrimination in their daily work. More than half of older workers in one study identified that they had been passed over for learning opportunities or training. In addition, younger workers often resent their older supervisors and leaders, as they perceive them as “blocking” the higher-ranking management jobs by not retiring “on time.”

Age is a group officially protected from discrimination in Canada, however it is less commonly discussed. In fact, well-meaning people often overlook ageism as a form of prejudice, simply because it is socially accepted as a norm. Ageism is real for those who experience it, and it is becoming an increasing issue for Canadian workplaces.

One of the reasons we need to take a serious look at ageism in the workplace is that the demographic makeup of the Canadian workplace is changing. In 2016, 36% of the working-age population was over 55. It is expected that this could increase to 40% by 2026. This older section of your workforce holds the most industry and institutional knowledge. If they feel overlooked or undervalued, they may disengage or leave your organization entirely, taking this knowledge with them.

When looking again at job application, interviewing, and selection processes, organizations who pass over older candidates are missing an opportunity! Not only do these candidates bring with them the knowledge gleaned over a career of experience, but their experience also generates confidence which in turn generates efficiency. Older workers are also more able to keep their head in a crisis, having “seen it all before.” Moreover, don’t underestimate the commitment of older workers. Many of them have the choice to continue working in their chosen career, to downshift to something less demanding, or to simply retire early. That they choose to continue working speaks to a level of commitment to your organization greater than that of a company-hopping up-and-comer.

So, when hiring for a competent, hardworking team lead, don’t overlook the value of a former manager. When evaluating the success of your customer service team, don’t focus on greying hair over skill and competence. And if you need an intern, consider the value a senior might bring to your startup.

Here are a few practical ideas to reduce ageism in your workplace:

  1. Get to know your staff as individuals, irrespective of their ages. A 27-year-old may be the one inclined to coast while a 62-year-old may be hungering for a new challenge, but statistics show that the younger employee is more likely to be selected for a growth assignment. Learn about the needs and the aspirations that each individual holds for their own career and keep those in mind when assigning projects.
  2. Work age inclusivity into your job postings and interviewing practices. Remember that ‘X years of relevant experience’ does not necessarily equal ‘X years lived.’ Older applicants have the potential to be as eager to learn as younger applicants, and they bring a wealth of expertise to the table.
  3. Create a culture of respect. You don’t accept racial language in your workplace, so why permit a birthday card with a joke about being old? Be aware of ageist stereotypes, and actively work to be inclusive.

Your Engaged Assignment: Are your hiring practices skewed towards younger talent? Maybe it’s time to review your attraction strategy to ensure your workplace appeals to all age groups. Need a helping hand? One of our ‘senior’ HR practitioners is here to help!