Is ageism affecting your career?

Age: It’s been called “the last taboo” and the “final frontier of acceptable discrimination” for good reason. We’re often judged by it, and discrimination based on it can have harmful consequences — especially in the workplace.

Just ask the BBC. In recent months, the organization has been accused of ageism for replacing Arlene Phillips, a 66-year old judge on a popular dancing show in the UK, with former contestant Alesha Nixon, who is less than half of Phillip’s age. Critics decry the move as symptomatic of widespread discrimination at the BBC towards older females — a problem which has reportedly led other TV personalities like Anna Ford and Moira Stuart to quit the BBC.

While Phillips has put a public face on the problem of ageism in the workplace, the issue is more widespread than a media debacle. According to a March 2009 bulletin from the American Association of Retired People (AARP), age discrimination claims are on the rise in the U.S. From September 2007-2008, about 24,580 charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — a 29 per cent jump over previous years. Current statistics aren’t available yet, but the trend is expected to continue thanks to the struggling economy.

Who was hardest hit? Middle aged men — though experts aren’t sure if the numbers are due to age-targeted layoffs or if men are more likely to sue because their job prospects are grim. However, these numbers could be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg: most cases of ageism in the workplace aren’t detected, let alone prosecuted. Despite new legislation introduced in many countries over the past decade, ageism remains very tricky to prove. (Read the bulletin here.)

The numbers in Canada aren’t encouraging either. In a recent poll on ageism conducted by CARP (Canada’s Association for Older Canadians), two thirds of CARPAction readers reported having experienced ageism — like being the butt of a joke or receiving poor service. One in five participants felt that they lost a job or a promotion because of it. (Read the full analysis here.)

A company’s culture can also put older workers at a disadvantage by not allowing flexible schedules or part-time work — which many baby boomers are seeking. “Phasing” out employees or mandatory retirement ages are also discriminatory measures which advocacy groups like CARP continue to fight.

Worse yet — when mature workers lose their jobs, it’s much harder for them to find another position. According to a recent article in the New York Times, unemployed workers between the ages of 55 and 64 have a longer and more difficult job search than their younger colleagues. It can take up to 30 weeks for an “older worker” to find a new job — that’s three times longer than the average time it takes someone in the 25 to 34 age group to find new employment.

De-bunking the misconceptions

Why bother to hire an older worker? Most of them are just killing time until retirement, and are past their prime. They’re already set in their ways, and they’re not willing or able to change. Their outdated skills and expertise just don’t cut it in today’s challenging workplaces. We all know that once they’re over the hill, they start to lose it — they’re slow, forgetful and not as sharp as they used to be.

Besides, in public-facing industries like the media and public relations, younger people are more attractive and likable — and that’s better for business.

Ridiculous, no? Sadly, these points represent attitudes that many Zoomers face in today’s workplace. Such misconceptions can lead employers to undervalue workers, and cause workers to under-value their own contributions and abilities. Ageism can even stop people from pursuing better opportunities like promotions and raises — simply because they feel they don’t deserve them.

However, if you’ve been following recent trends, you already know that older workers are a valuable asset thanks to their experience, expertise and hard-earned business savvy. Companies should be working harder to retain them.

Furthermore, people over 50 aren’t slipping off into retirement — they’re pursuing their passions by diving into a second career or starting a new business. In the process, they’re creating new opportunities and helping to fuel economic growth. Consider this: a recent report from the UK National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) found that entrepreneurs between the ages of 50 and 65 were responsible for more than a quarter of the companies founded between 2001 – 2005 — that’s over 90,000 companies and 400,000 new jobs. The findings also noted older entrepreneurs are just as willing to take risks as younger entrepreneurs. (See Zoomer entrepreneurs for more details.)

And what about “the decline” that comes with age? That’s a myth too. While we can’t deny that our bodies change over time, several studies have found that there are greater differences in qualities like energy and productivity levels among workers in a given age group than between age groups. In other words, age is not an indicator of job performance.

Is youth an advantage?

Younger workers are often viewed as more innovative, enthusiastic, energetic and up-to-date with current trends and technology than older workers — but age doesn’t necessarily work in their favour. On the flip side, they’re often seen as immature, irresponsible and inexperienced, and often lose out when employers want “more mature” candidates. They’re viewed as vultures waiting to replace an older worker, and seen as undeserving of good positions when they do get them.

Furthermore, they’re sometimes treated with condescension because they’re the same age as their bosses’ and coworkers’ children. Some feel they have to work extra-hard to prove themselves, or earn their place “at the adult’s table”. It’s not surprising that recent studies suggest that ageism is just as bad for twenty-somethings as it is for people over the age of 50.

In short, ageism goes both ways. Whenever one age group unfairly treats another group differently based on erroneous assumptions, business is going to suffer.

What’s a worker to do?

Ageism in the workplace isn’t easy to fight, but there are some things you can do:

Learn more about ageism. Recognizing ageism and implementing change comes from better education. Websites like, the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the Ontario Human Rights Commission explain some of the issues and offer advice for addressing them.

Know your rights. In legal terms, employers aren’t allowed to treat people differently based on their age (once they reach the age of 18). For example, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, you have the right to be offered the same employment opportunities as everyone else regardless of what age you are. Employers can’t hire, train or promote workers based on age-based assumptions, nor can they target people of a certain age for downsizing or lay-offs.

Furthermore, employers are also responsible for making sure the workplace is inclusive and free from discrimination, and that it supports the needs of all workers. (That includes implementing modifications or adaptations to the work environment too.)

Address the issues. Experts warn against ignoring ageism as it can lead to generational gaps, isolation and miscommunication. Instead, people should talk about ageism issues and encourage dialogue among workers of all ages. (Yes, that includes speaking out against derogatory comments and jokes.)

Ageism, like any other “ism”, is an issue that will take time and effort to tackle. The best thing boomers and seniors can do is not give in to it, but continue to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions.

Additional sources:, The New York Times,,

Photo © Zsolt Nyulaszi

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