Two out of three workers who are aged 45 or over have either observed or experienced ageism in the workplace, AARP’s 2018 Value of Experience survey found. The results varied significantly between women and men, with 72% of women and only 57% of men saying they believe people face age discrimination in the workplace. Ageism isn’t just problematic — it’s also illegal. Knowing how to spot it is the first step toward addressing the unfortunately all-too-prevalent problem. So, what are some examples of ageism, and what can you do about it?
What is ageism?
Ageism is the prejudice against or stereotyping or discrimination of people because of their age, from unfair hiring or employment practices to upsetting "jokes" or remarks. It can occur in many contexts, including the workplace. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination in the workplace of people aged 40 or older. Many states have additional laws related to ageism, with some protecting workers under the age of 40, too.
Five signs of ageism at work
What are signs of age discrimination? Here are a few indications you’re experiencing or observing ageism at work.
1. You hear or are the subject of demeaning and disparaging age-related comments.
Offhand remarks and microaggressions may come from an innocent place, but they can be hurtful — and ageist. These include condescending suggestions that you might not be up-to-date with technology, questions about when you’re going to retire, calling you “grandma,” jokes about your mind going and so on.
2. Older workers are routinely passed over and overlooked for promotions and challenging assignments.
If your manager is taking away or refusing to give you challenging assignments in favor of passing them on to younger workers, who may be less qualified, it could be an indication that your employer is being ageist and may be preparing to push you out. Moreover, if you’re passed over for promotions or raises in favor of younger colleagues who aren’t as experienced and lack your skills, this is another sign of age discrimination.
3. Older workers are frequently being demoted or reassigned.
Some companies attempt to avoid lawsuits by demoting or reassigning older employees rather than outright firing them. In many cases, this is another attempt to push these employees out by making them feel unwelcome and not valuable; the hope is often that the employee will quit on their own.
4. You observe that your company tends to solely hire younger employees.
Do you notice that a majority of new hires tend to be on the younger side? This is more prevalent in some industries than in others. In the tech industry, for example, 70% of IT professionals have reported experiencing or observing age discrimination, according to a report by the EEOC.
5. There are frequent layoffs of older employees.
If you witness that older employees’ jobs are frequently eliminated, you may be observing ageism at your company. This is especially true if the position isn’t actually eliminated but changed only marginally — and then filled by a younger worker. It’s also suspect if a majority of layoffs seem to happen to older workers.
Why it’s a problem in the workplace.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the overall average age of retirement is 64 and has been rising for the past several decades. This suggests that many Americans want or need to stay in their jobs and the workforce. Discrimination of any type is problematic, of course. It’s demoralizing to older workers, who may very well be extremely qualified for and have a lot to offer to their roles and employers.
3 ways to change it.
How do you deal with ageism in the workplace? When it’s occurring at a systematic level, this can be difficult, but it can and should be addressed.
1. Look for professional development opportunities.
If you’re experiencing ageism or are worried that you might face it, get ahead of the storm by making yourself indispensable. Pay attention to news and trends and your industry and stay on top of skills you should learn and competencies you should have. This might involve taking a course or gaining a certification. Ask colleagues for suggests of how you might grow in your field, too.
2. Stay on the alert.
If you hear an ageist remark, don’t dismiss it — it could be an indication of a larger pattern. We’re not saying you always need to have your guard up, but you should pay attention to unfair practices that are occurring. It can also help to write down what you observe or experience.
3. Educate others.
If you do observe or experience ageist behavior at work, may others aware that it’s happening, whether or not it’s happening to you. People of all generations should speak out against discriminatory behavior, no matter what their age or background. In some cases, the perpetrators may not even be aware that they’re doing anything wrong, and you could be helping them and preventing them from hurting others in the future.
Can you sue your employer for age discrimination?
The ADEA makes it illegal to discriminate against people 40 or older, so if you fall into this category and believe that you’ve been the victim of ageism at work, you may have a case for suing. However, you should understand that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to win an age discrimination suit, especially as these complaints have become more frequent in the past few years. If you take your employee to court and end up losing, the effects could be costly — other employers in your industry may be reluctant to hire you, for example.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, especially if the effects of ageism have negatively impacted you and your career. Just make sure you do your due diligence. Review your specific state laws regarding ageism and meet with an employment attorney. She can evaluate your case (and whether she believes you have a good one) and make a suggestion on how to proceed.