Age discrimination in the workplace can mean any number of things. It can refer to discriminating against an individual when it comes to hiring them, promotions, raises, bonuses, firing them, laying them off, etc. solely based on their age. It can also mean harassing them because they are too young or too old. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which is supported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), helps protect workers over the age of 40. However, we all know that what is on paper is very different from what happens in reality. In this article, we will talk about discrimination in both older and younger workers as well as steps we can all take to reduce such discrimination in the workplace.
My Experience with Age Discrimination
Age Discrimination against Older Workers
I personally have always valued the experience and knowledge that older workers bring to the workplace. After all, most of the older workers are my dad’s age or could even be my grandparents. I attribute much of my success to my parents and grandparents.
But, I have seen older workers get discriminated against at work simply because of their age. Older employees are usually the ones who will get laid off first. This is especially prevalent when companies go through transitions and new leadership is interested in having only fresh blood. While I can certainly see that point of view, in my experience it only hurts the company. When employees are laid off solely on their age and not on their value, a lot of important knowledge gets lost with the employees and everyone left at the company is stuck picking up whatever pieces are left.
When recessions hit, age discrimination against older workers is even more common. Employers want to cut costs, so they cut the employees with the largest salaries – generally older workers. When employers are hiring during a recession, they favor younger employees as they know they will require lower salaries.
Age Discrimination Not Just for Older Workers – It Affects Younger Workers Too
While the majority of age discrimination in the workplace happens to older workers, it does happen to younger workers as well. While older workers are considered “too expensive,” younger workers are often considered “too inexperienced”. A lot of times, older workers feel threatened by their younger colleagues’ many college degrees. In such cases, younger workers will be discriminated against for having “too much schooling.”
I myself have been discriminated against because I was “too young”. This is more unusual but it does happen. In a company of older employees, despite the fact that I provided top-notch results on all of my major projects, I was continuously told that I “didn’t have enough experience.” I was told that it did not matter how “young” I was, all that mattered was experience. This surprised me considering that they had hired me for this role based off of my experience!
I was told I would be doing mostly tactical work going forward and that I would only get to observe other more experienced employees while they worked on the major projects. When I asked where I might have missed something on the major projects I had completed, they had no answer.
Even though the number of reports of age discrimination at work is rising, it can be extremely difficult to prove discrimination of any sort. Age discrimination affects us all.
Age Discrimination in the Workplace and What We Can Do
Businesses, Employers, Managers:
It is important that businesses, employers and managers realize the value that their employees bring to the table. If businesses fail to do so, it will only hurt them in the long run. By discriminating solely based on age or salary, you are very likely losing your top talent.
It is important that businesses and managers understand that older workers bring extensive knowledge about the company and its history. If the employee has worked at a variety of companies, they bring the combined knowledge of the best practices from a multitude of corporations. Why would you want to throw that away without a second thought?
If the employee has been at the same company for forever, I can assure you that individual is not going to leave the company on their own accord. It does not matter how bad things get. These employees have surely seen both good and bad times at the company and they have stayed through it all. They have loyalty and you can be sure they will be there as long as you will let them.
Older employees also have experience in multiple fields. Over a career of 20-40 years, it is almost certain that the employee has not been doing the same job the entire time. Chances are, they have not even been in the same department. This knowledge of different areas of the business adds diversity to the company no matter what race or gender. Yes, older workers may be expensive but truly consider what value you are getting for that price.
Also consider the fact that younger workers are earning higher starting salaries than what people their age earned previously. My starting salary was at least 38% higher than my dad’s and we both got our first real jobs after our master’s degrees. This is not anything unusual or unexpected. It is just the nature of money and time and the economy but it is an important factor nonetheless.
Sure, younger workers may not have the experience or loyalty that older workers provide. But younger workers bring fresh enthusiasm and a newer perspective.
Younger employees certainly need work life balance but most of them do not have families or children that they have to go home to or pick up at a certain time. As a result, younger employees are more focused on career growth, experience and development. They are more willing to put in their all to finish a project, whereas older workers have responsibilities and are more family focused than career focused.
Employers should not underestimate younger workers and their abilities. Experience is definitely something that is needed but education and creativity should be valued just as highly. It takes some adults hours to figure out devices like iPods, iPhones and iPads, it takes toddlers minutes. Experience is not the only factor.
As employees, we do have power and influence when it comes to age discrimination in the workplace. Here is how to exercise it:
It is important that you be comfortable with sharing your ideas and mentoring younger workers. Many older employees fear that in doing so, they will be giving away their power. They will be giving away the only thing that is keeping them valuable and relevant in the workplace, their knowledge and experience.
This is not an unreasonable fear at all. But think about it this way: If you share your experience with others, others will become blatantly aware of how much knowledge and experience you have and will wonder how they could ever succeed without you. In sharing your knowledge with others, you are also marketing your value and reminding people of why they need you.
Learn to be ok with change. Embrace it and know that change makes us all grow. So many times, I have seen older workers fear change and stick to their comfort zones. Not only are you limiting yourself, but you are setting yourself up for failure.
If you are having trouble adapting to change, talk to younger workers and get their perspective. If you have been mentoring them and teaching them the ropes, they will be more than happy to share something with you! Regardless, they would be more than happy to give their advice. Who doesn’t like being asked for advice? (To learn the perspective younger workers come from, see: Nervous About Talking to Big Shots?).
If you want to improve your computer or technical skills, definitely ask someone younger! I once taught an older worker friend of mine about excel shortcuts. He was extremely open and said he wished we had talked before because I could have saved him so much time. The better you are with technology, the more productive you can be and the more valuable you will be come.
I also taught him about the value of YouTube and the excitement on his face seriously made my day. If you are an older employee reading this, here is my lesson to you: YouTube is more than just clips of videos to pass the time. There is a multitude of valuable educational and informative information on there. I know of many people who learned economics, calculus, etc. using Khan Academy. I often use YouTube to learn about different excel functions that I don’t know how to do. It is a valuable resource that can take you a long way.
There are going to be many times when others underestimate you because of your youth. I have an entire chapter related to this in my book, 25 Things They Don’t Teach in Business School. My advice to you is to never give up. When I say never give up, I do not mean that you should stay at the same company even if you are not growing. I am all about growth. These are the years when you have the time and freedom to put your career first and grow the most and learn as much as you can so take it! But, if you have been at a company for a year or two to no avail, go somewhere else and start fresh.
If all you get is the grunt work at your company, I suggest you devote at least 30 minutes every week to finding areas of improvement at work that you can fix. Here are some examples:
- You see a better way to complete a process
- You see a lack of communication so you set up and run weekly meetings
- You notice that most colleagues lack a main skill set that is crucial to success, so you research and organize a training group to come in and teach the skill. Or, you learn about the skill yourself, create and give your own presentation and you become the expert (this can really work wonders)
- You notice others are not as up-to-date with their industry as they should, so you a book a month, write a summary with the crucial points and share them with leaders in your group or with your team
- You sense your team lacks foresight and planning so you talk to all the stakeholders and create your own plan that you share with your team to follow
- You come up with some creative way to cut costs
- You come up with some creative way to bring more money in
- You find a way to cut the amount of time spent on tactical activities so focus can be spent on more strategic activities
It sounds harder and bigger than it is to improve things in the office, but it is not, I assure you. The simple solutions are the best. Those are the ones that people need most and wonder why they did not think of it before! Those are the winners.
If you are stuck with the grunt work, check out my book. I provide tons of strategies for how to not only look fantastic in the eyes of your manager while doing the grunt work, but to also make sure you are not doing the grunt work forever. My book is also chock-full of ideas on how to provide value to others.
Networking with those higher in the ranks is important for your success at work and will reduce some of the age discrimination you experience in the workplace. The more someone gets to know you, the more trust they have in you and your abilities, even if they have never been privy to your work. So talk to people with higher titles than yours and stay in touch.
If you are nervous about talking to older workers or workers higher on the totem pole, read my article Nervous About Talking to Big Shots? For some tips on how to get more comfortable so you can show them your true potential.
If you are looking for more information regarding age discrimination in the workplace, check out the following resources:
If you are being discriminated against because of your age, Age Discrimination in the American Workplace: Old at a Young Age by Raymond Gregory will provide you with details on how to file and substantiate your claims. This book also talks about the different ways older workers are stereo typed and discriminated against as well as some solutions. It is available both in hardback and on Kindle.
If you are more interested in the policies, law, and academic side of age discrimination for both young and older workers, Age Discrimination: Ageism in Employment and Service Provision by Malcolm Sargeant may be more along your lines. It is a great guide for academics as well as businesses needing to stay up to speed with the more recent changes in the law regarding age discrimination.