Workplace ageism is rampant

Age DiscriminationCompanies have made great strides toward eliminating racism and sexism in the workplace, but ageism is a different story.

Workplace bias against older employees is everywhere, even as the population ages and people continue to work later in life. Even if it's unintentional, age discrimination can make employees of all ages feel less interested and happy in their jobs.

Those are some of the conclusions researcher Jacquelyn James and her colleagues at Boston College's Sloan Center on Aging & Work detail in a new report on ageism in the workplace. The report, which will be published next month in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, is based in part on a 2009 survey of 6,000 employees at a national retail chain.

Employees who believe their companies intentionally or unintentionally pass over workers 55 or older for promotions because of their age are more likely to feel "unengaged" at work, according to the report.

Age discrimination in the workplace has been a growing problem in a tight economy that's pitted workers of all ages against each other when it comes to finding or hanging onto jobs. Although the jobless rate for younger workers has been higher than for workers 45 and older, older workers who lose a job take longer -- an average of 60 weeks -- to re-enter the work force.

The issue of ageism at work came up again this month in a Senate Committee on Aging hearing on unemployment, and also in a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendation that federal lawmakers adopt strategies to help older job seekers. BloombergBusinessWeek also explores the issue in this story: Boomers and Millennials: Who's Got it Worse in the Workplace?

In an interview with SecondAct, James talks about why eliminating age bias in the workplace is so difficult, why middle-aged and older workers aren't taking opportunities away from younger colleagues, and how workplace demographics have changed in recent years.

SA: Why is there so much ageism in the workplace?
JJ: Unlike all of the other isms, ageism is OK. We don't have any cultural or social sanctions against ageism. We all buy those birthday cards that denigrate age. Nobody's going to criticize you for making fun of that old guy driving the car slowly. But if we made a negative comment about a black person or a woman, someone would say "No, that's not funny." But aging is a lifelong process. We all still have the view that aging is going downhill, when right now there's a much longer period of life when we have health and vigor and have amassed talent and resilience and have a lot to offer.

SA: Why is it important for companies to keep ageism at bay so employees are happy at work?
JJ: Employers want employees who feel productive and good about what they do. If they feel energized and capable, they'll recommend working there to other people. If they aren't engaged, companies are going to have problems with retention, morale and productivity. Not having engaged employees means a negative for the bottom line. Employers only worry about age discrimination in terms of being sued. But this is a bigger problem.

SA: What about the idea that older workers are getting in their younger colleagues' way?
JJ: There's been a lot of effort made to analyze whether if older workers retire it would free up jobs for younger workers. But the data doesn't back it up. The problem isn't that older workers are keeping jobs from younger workers. It's that there aren't enough jobs to go around. Also, older workers are providing support to a lot of people, financial support to younger people and caregiving support to their parents. They're still contributing to Social Security and the economy instead of retiring and becoming a drain on those resources.

SA: Isn't it a paradox that because of the aging population and the economy, more people are working later in life, yet there's still discrimination against older workers?
JJ: I was talking with a friend this morning about this. She has a client who's an [executive] who's 58 and looking to make his next move. He's been told by three search firms that he's attractive except for his age. But a 58-year-old is likely to work for another 12 years and be a major force. He's acquired all this experience and knowledge and emotional resilience, and yet he's being turned away at least ostensibly because of his age. We try to educate employers about differences between older workers of yesterday and today. You shouldn't look at a 58-year-old today as someone who's on their way out the door.

SA: How are today's late-career workers different from before?
JJ: There's this idea that they're not eager for promotion, that they've got one foot in retirement, and that's just not true. We found that a lot of older workers do want promotions.

SA: Any advice for people who are out of work and have been job hunting for months, or even longer?
JJ: Knowing that for most people it does come to an end is reassuring, because people get discouraged and quit trying. One thing I tell people is you can't quit trying. No matter how many times you get rejected, you have to keep going.

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