Workers are retiring at older ages than in the past, which also means more people are making career moves or accepting new roles later in life. Despite a generally aging workforce, however, many offices are guilty of discriminating against older workers. This is an example not just of the ageism that’s pervasive in our society, but of age discrimination, an illegal practice that can leave businesses vulnerable under the law.
Ageism Versus Age Discrimination
If you’ve ever heard someone refer to older adults as out of touch or unable to master new skills, you’ve witnessed ageism. Ageism, however, is a more general manifestation of age discrimination, which in the workplace typically includes such actions as firing or laying off workers because they’re older, denying promotions to older workers despite being qualified, or implementing workplace policies that have a negative impact on workers and applicants over the age of 40. Age 40 is the threshold established by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which has been federal law since 1967, though some states also protect younger workers under similar terms.
While age 40 may be the cutoff under federal law, many workers would question whether that’s really when discrimination begins. Isn’t 40 awfully young? At first glance, it might seem like it, but in fact, 20% of workers age 40 or over have experienced age discrimination, according to a Hiscox study. However, while legal coverage begins at age 40 and some workers do experience discrimination beginning around that age, particularly in youth-oriented fields, most workers believe they’re most likely to begin experiencing discrimination around age 51.
Identifying Age Discrimination
Because ageism is so pervasive, it can sometimes be hard for employees and employers alike to identify what age discrimination looks like. Like most other federal antidiscrimination laws, though, age discrimination often looks very similar to disability, pregnancy, and gender discrimination. As the federal employment lawyers at Snider & Associates explain, age discrimination might include such actions as giving inaccurate performance reviews to hold workers back, creating an unnecessarily harsh work environment, or verbally harassing older workers. In other words, it’s not always a simple case of unfair hiring or firing.
Age discrimination can also overlap with other kinds of discrimination. For example, most employers recognize that they shouldn’t fire a worker who is on medical leave, but older workers are also disproportionately likely to require medical leave. And while a younger worker may not be fired for taking medical leave because employers assume they will come back and resume working as usual, the same employers are more likely to fire an older worker in the same position because they may argue that an older worker is no longer able to do their job. In cases like this, age discrimination may also overlap with disability discrimination.
Slights And Exclusions
As for the subtler ways in which older workers are discriminated against in the workplace, the most important thing that employers can do is to focus on broad inclusion and equal treatment. Are you offering learning opportunities to some of your workers? If so, they should be offered to all workers. This includes providing funding for continuing education, professional conference participation, and other professional development reimbursements. You can’t exclude older workers from educational advancement.
Another common way that workplaces discriminate against older workers is by unevenly distributing time off based on factors like childcare. Yes, employers can’t discriminate against parents simply for having children, but they can expect parents to set up alternative arrangements for childcare and that parents will take on equitable work during holidays and other busy periods. Older workers are sometimes denied time off in favor of younger workers simply because they’re understood to not have small children at home; their outside lives are deprioritized compared to younger workers.
Gender And Age Discrimination
Finally, we can’t talk about age discrimination without also talking about gender. Women are more likely to experience age discrimination at younger ages than men because of the high value placed on women’s looks. In fact, 72% of women between 45 and 74 feel they have experienced age discrimination, compared with only 57% of men of the same age. What makes this even worse is that many women are held back early in their careers by family responsibilities because of a continued lack of parity in parenting and household management, so early age discrimination can leave women several steps behind their male peers in a given industry.
Age discrimination is only going to become a greater concern in the coming years as the workforce continues to age, and workers should be prepared to address and combat it. Know how to recognize age discrimination in interviews, adapt your resume to minimize cues about your age, and make it clear to your employer that you will speak up if you feel you’re being treated unfairly because of your age. This includes everything from taking the issue to HR to seeking legal advice.
No one wants to talk about age discrimination, but it’s a serious issue and one that workplaces can’t afford to ignore. Brush up on the law and take a look at your policies – if they don’t reflect a commitment to inclusion, it’s time to make some changes.