Skillsoft Blog

Ageism in the Workplace

Ageism in the Workplace

This is the second post in our series on Unconscious Bias training where we examine discrimination in the workplace and discuss how best to tackle this growing problem. Previously, Norman Ford discussed why raising awareness of prejudices is the first step towards a solution.


Today I turn 49.

Pause for a moment while that number sinks in.

I’m very proud of that number. Getting older isn’t the hard part for me, what is challenging is that in my head I still feel I’m 23. Imagine my surprise when I see my reflection in a mirror!  When I encounter someone from school or college I think, “Wow they sure look old,” and attribute it to a life of debauchery and hedonism, rather than the unalterable truth that my college days were eons ago and my school, well that was literally in a different millennium.

While I feel young, I am aware I’m getting older and wholeheartedly embrace the process. Every year, I pick one new thing to no longer care about, and it’s wonderful and very freeing. I only wish I’d started it sooner.

While in my head I’m one age, on paper I’m another, and to a prospective employer, or even my current employer, it is this number that carries the most significance.

At Perspectives, Josh Bersin talked about the unsettling news that because youth is seen as a competitive advantage, age discrimination is going to be a significant issue going forward.  He talked about it becoming one of the major “isms” of the future.

My initial reaction is to start talking about ageism and how it is yet another form of discrimination. And let me assure you mine would be the loudest voice in such a scene.

However, something recently happened that made me realize how easy it is to make a snap judgement based on someone’s age.

I was watching a news report of a group of senators asking Mark Zuckerberg questions, the majority of which, I’m afraid to say, revealed a shocking ignorance of even the most basic knowledge about Facebook.

So cringe-worthy was the moment that naturally it now has its own meme, and of course, folks had a lot of fun with it. Comments ranged from “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” to “What is Facemash and is it still running?”

Along with the rest of the universe, I took aim at the senators and immediately dismissed them as too old, that indeed it was time they hung up their boots.

But then I thought hang on that’s a somewhat prejudiced view. My mother, who is 78 uses social media and not only understands how to use each medium, is rather proficient and prolific online.

Age wasn’t the culprit here; it was ignorance.

What’s in a number?

 The number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to more than double from 46 million to over 98 million by 2060. Every day in the United States, 10,000 people turn 65. For people born today, the likelihood that they will live to triple digits is substantial: A child born in 2011 has a one-in-three chance of living to her 100th birthday.

Globally the number of people aged 60 and older will increase to 2 billion by 2050.

In short, we are living longer, therefore, whether by choice or necessity, we are working longer and how we deal with this fact/trend will determine how we ultimately deal with an older workforce.

Ageism in the workplace

The US Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 makes it illegal to use age as a sole criterion when filling a position. But that doesn’t mean age is not used to discriminate. One of the problems with this type of exclusion is that job seekers don’t even realize they are being discriminated against because they don’t see the recruitment ads.

Or when they do, we know, and after one look at someone in their 60s, an interviewer decides they won’t fit with the current culture of the company. Or, a recruiter sees a LinkedIn profile and won’t even meet with a candidate because they have reasoned that the volume of experience equates to years on the job.

In one study, researchers sent over 40,000 résumés to apply for job openings posted online in 12 cities. To test for age discrimination, they responded to each posting with three résumés representing different age groups (young, middle-aged and senior). Even though all had similar skills, older candidates received far fewer callbacks than young or middle-aged workers.

In 2016, the most recent full year available, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 20,857 claims of violations under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  In 2017, the Communications Workers of America filed a lawsuit against several employers claiming they engaged in age discrimination when they imposed age limits on who could view the recruitment ads.

For women, it’s even worse. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco researched on Age Discrimination and Hiring of Older Workers and found evidence of age discrimination, particularly against older women.

And the older a person gets, the worse it gets.

“While both middle-aged and older applicants experience discrimination relative to younger applicants, older applicants—those near the age of retirement—experience more age discrimination,” the authors said. 

Ageless or age-aware?

In October 2016, Facebook was under attack for allowing advertisers to exclude ethnic affinities from seeing housing ads. After the publication of this article, they promised to step up its prohibition against discrimination in adverting for housing, employment or credit.

Further analysis by ProPublica in November 2017 showed that advertisers were still able to discriminate:

 ProPublica bought dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users, such as African-Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers.

 In December 2017, Facebook was further challenged by allowing advertisers to exclude specific age groups for job ads. Rob Goldman, Facebook’s VP of Ads, replied with a robust defense entitled ‘This Time, ProPublica, We Disagree’ where he stated that

“We disagree that these advertisements are discriminatory….. Used responsibly, age-based targeting for employment purposes is an accepted industry practice and for good reason: it helps employers recruit and people of all ages find work.”

Ageism, like another form of discrimination, needs to be called out. Since the Facebook video incident, I am now actively trying to monitor myself and be mindful of making assumptions based on someone’s date of birth. Discrimination or prejudice is not always obvious which is why the role of unconscious bias training is so crucial.

As my colleague, Norm Ford says it is all about raising awareness that how we treat customers, colleagues and others must be a fixed state and not change depending on the individuals’ gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age or sexual preference.

And now I’m off to celebrate and decide what worry I’m letting go this year.

Tara O’Sullivan is the Chief  Marketing Officer and Executive sponsor of the Women in Action Programme at Skillsoft.

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