Workplace age discrimination is all-too real. This, when many Americans are continuing to work — either by choice or out of necessity — for longer than ever before.
The aging workforce in the U.S. has grown considerably. Last year, AARP reported that employees aged 65 and older made up the fastest-growing segment of America’s workforce (although COVID layoffs may have curtailed that trend). Despite aging workers’ desire to continue working, however, research done by FGB shows that workplace ageism often manifests by forcing those employees out.
According to that research, for those who report having experienced ageism in the workplace, 27% said they’ve been laid off for reasons they believed were related to their age. So, too, can ageism impact one’s ability to reenter the workforce after losing a job. In FGB’s research, for those who’ve personally experienced ageism, 43% said they believe they’ve been passed over for a job for age-related reasons.
While ageism can — and does — manifest in explicit discrimination, it can also be subtler. Many have found themselves on the receiving end of an age-based microaggression, whether it’s a “joke” about an older person’s ability to use technology or — as an example of reverse ageism — a comment intended to undermine a youthful-looking colleague for their presumed inexperience.
Ageist comments in the workplace (or outside of it) aren’t OK. Below, here a few examples of ageist phrases to watch out for.
1. “Aren’t you overqualified for this role?”
“Overqualified” is one of THE most consistently used ageist words in the dictionary. Masked as an pseudo-compliment — “you have so much experience!” — its meaning is almost always, in actuality, negative and meant to send the message that, really, you aren’t right for this role because of your age.
2. “The ideal candidate will have five to seven years of experience.”
It’s one thing to specify a minimum number of years of experience on a job posting. But to cap it — especially within such a limited range, as many postings do — is inarguably ageist.
3. “We’re starting a new digital upskilling initiative — you should join!”
OR "...and you're required to join."
Due to the constantly evolving nature of technology, companies really should be investing resources into the technical education and digital savvy of all their team members. But if it’s the case that older workers, specifically, are being told how much they’ll benefit from this type of program — that’s ageist.
4. “I really need you to pick up the slack on this project since Karen’s kids have XYZ thing going on.”
This type of request might be directed at a childless team member (who may or may not be young), or it could be directed at someone who’s presumed, because of their advanced age, not to have young kids at home. In either scenario, it’s not OK to harbor the assumption that because a person is out of child-rearing age, the ways in which they use their free time automatically count for less.
5. “It’s never too late to make a change.”
No, it isn’t. But is the other party’s age totally removed from the reason you’re making this intended-to-be-encouraging remark?
6. “You’re better at using (piece of technology) than I am!”
Maybe this sounds exactly how you meant it: the other party is really exceptionally adept at using a certain type of technology! If they’re not a wiz, though, and all they're actually doing is texting on a smartphone — perhaps rethink your exclamations of surprise.
7. “And they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!”
Again, maybe this is somehow, on some misinformed level, intended to be a compliment. Still probably not the best comment to make in regards to a colleague’s new skill or achievement (regardless of their age, honestly).
8. “So, when’s the big retirement?”
Unless the other person has brought up their plans for retirement to you previously, don’t make assumptions that it's around the corner. You might mean well — retirement is supposed to be exciting, right? — but it can also come off in a “it's about time you're out of here” way. Also: not everyone wants to retire!
9. “You make (XYZ age) look good!”
How about just don’t?