Article in Business / Human Resources / Discrimination
This article briefly examines the growing incidence of ageism (age discrimination) in the workplace, describes laws which prohibit age discrimination, and sets forth steps for reversing such age-related discrimination in for-profit and non-profit organizations.
 
 
 

Of the four generations working in America’s labor force i.e. “traditionalists” (those born before or during WW II),” baby boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y, baby boomers comprise the largest group by far with a population of 85-million (Gibson et al, 2010). Baby boomers are generally regarded as people born 1945-1964. The majority of boomers were born 1945-1950 and are thereby aged 59-64/65.

As a generation of workers, baby boomers share a number of similarities which are depicted below:

Table A (Adapted from Gibson et al, 2010)

Traits Shared by the Baby-Boomer Generation

Comfortable with change

Loyal to their company

Competitive

Entitled

Idealistic

Materialistic

Optimistic

Sandwich generation

Security oriented

Self-absorbed

Technologically conservative

Imbibe traditional family values

Skeptical or wary of authority figures

Have work-aholic tendencies

Ageism/Age Discrimination and Laws Which Forbid It

Ageism, or age discrimination, can be defined “…as the practice of excluding applicants or employees from all types of types employment decisions based solely on the calendar age of the individual” (Gibson et al, 2010). The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, though historical in its import and reach, did not ban age discrimination. The U.S. Department of Labor in 1967, however, added age discrimination to the list of illegal discriminatory practices through the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA.

At that time the ADEA covered workers 40-65 and applied to all for-profit and non-profit organizations with 20 or more employees, including employment agencies and labor unions (Gibson et al, 2010). Under the tenets of the Act, an individual cannot be discriminated against owing to their (his/her) age in any of the following categories: hiring, promoting, terminating, layoffs, benefits, and training. Additionally, under the provisions of the ADEA, employees cannot be retaliated against by their employers for filing an age-discrimination suit or for taking part in an investigation, litigation, or in proceedings. In 1978, by an act of Congress, the age range of ADEA was extended to 70 (Gibson et al, 2010).

More recently, in 1990, the Older Worker Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA) amended ADEA to include laws which prohibit companies from discriminating against older workers by denying them their benefits. The OWBPA was enacted as the result of an earlier Supreme Court ruling which had allowed a company to “…deny or reduce benefits to older workers” (Gibson et al, 2010).

Sadly, in spite of the laws in place which strictly forbid age discrimination on the job, and in hiring practices, ageism is not uncommon which can be seen below:

  • In 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recorded 19,103 age-discrimination cases which became the most common form of discrimination in the country (Gibson et al, 2010).
  • Disturbingly, Fortune 500 companies have not been innocent of ageism in the workplace, with at least two major corporations which have had legal action taken against them for such practices (Gibson et al, 2010).
  • In a study conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), nearly 70% of employees between the ages of 45 and 74 reported having experienced or having observed some form of age prejudice on the job (Gibson et al 2010).

Stereotypes Concerning Older Workers

Younger workers often assume that older employees are physically unable, or less able, to carry out their jobs with diligence, strength, and vigor, but this is patently false as baby boomers and seniors consistently have a better record of attendance at work than their younger counterparts (Gibson et al, 2010). Additionally, older employees often have a higher degree of focus than do younger workers and often persevere more tenaciously in the conduct and completion of their work in a timely manner.

Older Employees are Stereotyped as Being “Set in Their Ways”

Older people in companies often get stereotyped as being “set in their ways,” with little inclination to learn new things or to tackle new challenges. This is often not the case as former President Jimmy Carter, now 85, does an incredible amount of diligent and creative work to further the advance of Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Foundation, two high caliber non-profit organizations which have benefitted tens of thousands of people in America and overseas. Moreover, the 80-year old actor, director, and producer Clint Eastwood continues to make high-quality films and keeps himself in robust physical condition with daily weight training and aerobic workouts. At 88, the actress Betty White remains very active in TV appearances and shows no signs of slowing down.

Some years ago in Oregon, an 82-year old woman finished her Bachelor’s degree and set a goal of finishing her Ph.D. degree in history by the age of 90. In short, we are only as old as we think we are and people of all ages in the workplace should remember this.

Four Types of Ageism (Age Discrimination)

The Anti-Ageism Task Force (AATF) has enumerated four kinds of ageism: 1) Personal ageism; 2) Institutional ageism; 3) Intentional ageism; and 4) Unintentional ageism (Gibson et al, 2010). The first form of ageism noted above occurs when a single person holds prejudicial or discriminatory views toward older persons in the workplace. The second type of ageism relates to rules, policies, and practices, such as mandatory retirement, that apply to a certain age group. Intentional ageism has to do with behaviors or practices that are intentionally and knowingly discriminatory, or biased, against older workers. The last form, unintentional ageism, occurs when an individual unknowingly, or accidentally, engages in a discriminatory act against an older worker in the place of employment.

Ageism in Hiring Practices

Ageism does not just refer to workplace discrimination, however. Bias against older people in terms of not hiring them for positions they are well-qualified for is the most common form of age discrimination (Gibson et al, 2010). Typically older applicants, who share similar qualifications to younger applicants, receive fewer interviews, undergo shorter interviews, and are given fewer job offers than their younger counterparts.

“Senior Shutout”

Another form of age discrimination is called “senior shutout” which takes place when older employees are denied opportunities by the organization to stay current (Gibson et al, 2010). Such denial of training is sometimes purposeful but it is sometimes based on presumption because company leadership quite often assumes that mature i.e. older workers are uninterested in such opportunities and/or are uninterested in tackling training opportunities and new challenges, which is often not the case.

Mature (Older) Employees are Vulnerable to Three Negative Realities

According to the group called Age Lessons, which is a baby-boomer think tank and consulting firm, mature workers are very vulnerable to three negative realities which include: 1) Redundancy; 2) Relevance; and 3) Resentment (Gibson et al, 2010). Mature (senior) workers are often deemed “more expensive” than their younger counterparts and are thereby more likely to be made redundant and permanently laid off than younger employees. Because they are denied training opportunities to stay up to date, in terms of their job-skill sets, senior workers often have to worry about whether they are still regarded as “relevant” by their organizational hierarchy. And, unfortunately, younger employees often regard, and resent, older workers as standing in their way in terms of advancement in the company (Gibson et al 2010).

Ways of Rectifying Age Discrimination (Ageism) in the Workplace

Because of the growth and persistence of ageism in places of employment, the following scholars have outlined a valuable four-step approach, which if applied diligently, could enable significant progress in overcoming this form of discrimination: Jane Whitney Gibson, J. Preston Jones, Jennifer Cella, Cory Clark, Alexandra Epstein, and Jennifer Haselberger who are professors and graduate students at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This approach, which will be detailed very shortly, is called TEAM: 1) T=Team Composition; 2) E=Education and Training; 3) A=Awareness/Accountability/Accommodation; and 4) M=Mentoring (Gibson et al, 2010).

Formation of an Age-Diverse Team

Essential to the overcoming of ageism in the workplace is the formation of a team of diverse individuals from different generations, including baby boomers, to expose the reality of age discrimination and craft and implement strategies for overcoming it. Age-related differences need to be aired with frank discussions as to how differences should be managed and how conflict should be kept positive. Differences in age and perspective should be respected and viewed as sources of complementarity, not sources of negativity One of the most important things is to help workers, from every age group represented, air their fears which often fuel stress, tension, and inter-personal conflict.

Attentive Listening is Crucial

Additionally, it is extremely important that older workers on their team listen attentively to the ideas, feedback, and opinion of younger employees and it is essential that younger workers accord mature employees the same respect. Moreover, older workers should share their wealth of experience with younger employees while striving to be innovative and up to date in their recommendations.

Education and Training

The E in the TEAM approach to overcoming age prejudice in the workplace refers to education and training, most especially diversity training. The presence of four generations in today’s working society represents the widest age-range diversity in the history of the American workplace. All age groups, at every hierarchy in organizations, should receive sensitivity training as to their respective values and as to transformation. Conflict does not have to be destructive or divisive; it can mean newly found complementarity, cooperation, synergy, forward momentum, and long-term sustainable internal and external growth of the entire organization. And, baby boomers need to have the same access to training as do their younger counterparts (Gibson et al, 2010).

Awareness, Accountability, and Accommodation

The A in the TEAM construct relates to awareness, accountability, and accommodation which are also foundational to overcoming ageism (age discrimination). It must be made clear that reversal of ageism in companies is not merely the purview of the human-resources (HR) department, but is something that all employees, supervisors, managers, senior managers, executives, and senior executives have to be fully committed to carrying out on an ongoing basis over the near, medium, and long-term. Key stakeholders at every level of the organization have to be included in the decision-making process vis-à-vis overcoming ageism from the earliest stages. This sort of commitment is also vitally important in crafting “age-blind” recruitment and hiring policies and strategies. The contributions of baby boomers, and of every age group, in the company must be brought to the fore at every level of the organization, with respect and appreciation shown for all.

Mentoring comprises the M in the TEAM approach for overcoming age discrimination in the workplace. Older and younger workers and managers should meet face to face on a very regular basis to foster mutual understanding and trust. Senior workers can play a vital role in mentoring younger employees and managers and sharing with them the practical wisdom that they have acquired over the years. Younger workers, on the other hand, can lend fresh ways of thinking and innovation to the perspectives of older workers and assist them with adapting to new forms of technology which emerge in the organization. Many times, younger workers can assist their older counterparts in not only coping with the content of technology, but with the pace of its emergence, which can be overwhelming.

Conclusion

Organization-wide commitment to the reversal of ageism is the most important ingredient in overcoming it in the short, medium, and long-term. Frank discussion about age-based differences and fears must be encouraged with a spirit of respect for all human resources, of all ages, shown throughout the entire organization. And, “age-blind” recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices must be very strongly urged and enforced by every for-profit and non-profit organization in the country.

Source: Gibson, Jane W. et al. (2010). Ageism and the Baby Boomers: Issues, Challenges, and the TEAM Approach. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, January 2010, Volume 3, Number 1. Accessed on October 15, 2010 from: EBSCO Host Data Base, The University of Phoenix Online Library, University of Phoenix, the Apollo Group, Phoenix, AZ.

 
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