Ageism is one of the most unfair paradoxes in the labor market: People put in decades of hard work and then find themselves penalized for having done so.
And the problem is only worsening: Nearly 80% of older workers say they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, according to the most recent survey by AARP. That was the highest share since the group began asking the question in 2003.
Even as the economy bounces back from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, older workers are having a challenging time getting re-hired. The percentage of jobseekers in February above the age of 55 who were “long-term unemployed,” meaning they’d been looking for a job for 27 weeks or more, was more than 36%, compared to around 23% among those between the ages of 16 and 54. (Around a quarter of the workforce is older than 55.)
“I get these heart-rending emails from people who are incredibly well-qualified, who send out hundreds and hundreds of emails and don’t even get an answer,” said Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. “They are so demoralized.”
Unsurprisingly, the discrimination has psychological consequences. Around 6.3 million cases of depression globally are thought to be attributed to ageism, according to the The World Health Organization.
Anyone feeling that they’re paying a price for their age should know they’re not alone, experts say. Here are some strategies to combat the problem.
Start by realizing what’s internalized
You may have your own frustration and sadness about getting older; that’s understandable, Applewhite said: “We live in a culture that barrages us with negative messages about aging.” And, as a result, she said, “older people are often the most ageist of all.”
Yet these perceptions can have a powerful impact.
Research shows that older people exposed to subliminal negative age-stereotypes are more likely to perform poorly on cognitive and physical tasks, said Dr. Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez, manager of the global campaign to combat ageism at The World Health Organization.
On the flip side, de la Fuente-Núñez said, studies find that individuals with more positive self-perceptions of ageing experienced better functional health and greater longevity.
“Age stereotypes that we internalize can generate expectations that act as self-fulfilling prophecies,” de la Fuente-Núñez said.
It’s not hard to imagine how these dynamics cold hurt you professionally. For example, if you believe that older people are less competent with technology, when you get up there in age you may assume that you can’t learn and master certain digital skills and therefore not even attempt to.
To start to unwind some of this pessimism and its consequences, Applewhite recommends being skeptical of generalizations and getting more educated on the facts.
“The more we know about aging, the less fearful we become,” she said. “Our anxieties are way out of proportion to the reality.” (She said older people are often surprised to learn, for instance, that just 2.5% of Americans over the age of 65 live in nursing homes.)
And while some deterioration in memory and processing speed is common as we climb up the years, comprehension, reading and vocabulary are some of our abilities that remain stable — or even get better — with time, research shows.
“We talk about aging as if it’s entirely loss, but there are gains,” Applewhite said. “Find me an older person who actually wants to go back to their youth.”
Focus on how you’re still growing
Alison Chasteen, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies prejudice, has found in her research that some older adults fared better than others during the pandemic.
What was their secret? They focused on areas where they could still grow.
“We are referring to feeling that one is on a trajectory of improvement,” Chasteen said.
Fortunately, there are more ways than ever for older workers to continue advancing, said John Tarnoff, a career transition coach.
He pointed to the seemingly endless amount of free content on YouTube, as well as the available classes on platforms like Coursera, Udemy, Skillshare and GetSetUp.io, a learning community targeted at people over the age of 50.
Another useful strategy, he said, can be for people to directly contact the tech or software provider they want to learn more about. “The company can likely provide information and training to get you started,” Tarnoff said.
At the same time, some older workers worry too much about a specific skill they lack — say, a proficiency on Salesforce — and lose sight of all they’ve learned over the course of their career, Tarnoff said. That wisdom can’t be learned in a video.
“There’s a lot we bring to the table that isn’t on the page,” he said. “If you don’t know the strategic value and experience you bring to the marketplace from decades at work, you’re selling yourself short.”
Be prepared for the bias
Because age discrimination is so common, experts say older workers should be prepared to address incidents of it, unfortunately.
If you’re before a hiring manager and suspect that they’re concerned about your age, Applewhite recommends responding to it head on. “Say, ‘I know how to work this software,’ or, ‘I’m used to working with a younger team, and I don’t care if my boss is 12.'”
Many older workers are asked by hiring managers if they’re “overqualified” for a role, Tarnoff said.
Prompting that question can be a concern that you’ll take a better job as soon as you’re presented with one. To allay that fear in an interview, Tarnoff also suggests being direct, by saying something like, “This is not a stepping stone for me. At this point in my life, this is what I want to do.”
Of course, the discrimination occurs well beyond the hiring process. If you’re experiencing the problem at work, you shouldn’t ignore it, experts say.
But the way you confront the issue is key.
Chasteen, the professor who studies prejudice at the University of Toronto, has found in recent research that older people who respond to run-ins with ageism in a way that’s not accusatory are more likely to get a positive reaction than, say, those who get heated.
As an example, she described a situation in which an older person is offered help doing a task that they’re more than able to do on their own. Such acts can be considered benevolent ageism.
“We found that the moderate approach of saying, ‘Thank you, but I can manage on my own,’ resulted in fewer negative reactions to the older individual,” Chasteen said.
“Such a response acknowledges that there was likely no ill intent on the part of the person who offered the unwanted help,” she added. “But it also provides an opportunity for the older person to assert their competence in the situation.”
Consider reporting it
It’s important that people keep a record of repeated incidents of age discrimination they experience and then report them, said Jeff Vardaro, a civil rights attorney in Columbus, Ohio.
“It doesn’t fix itself,” Vardaro said. “Workers have to take these things into their own hands.” You also probably don’t want to sit on your complaints for too long, he added, since some states require age discrimination issues to be reported within a certain amount of time.
Your notes about your experience should be as detailed as possible, Vardaro said. For example, instead of writing that your boss said something mean about your age, you’ll want to specify that on 24 different occasions he asked you when you planned to retire. “That stuff can be really useful when you go report it,” he said.
Your company’s human resources department should be your first stop, but don’t be surprised if that conversation leads nowhere, he said. Unfortunately, the people in HR department can be be part of the ageist culture.
“Sometimes human resources is in on it because they have some incentive to push older workers out and bring in younger, cheaper workers,” Vardaro said. And, at the end of the day, he added, “their job is to protect the company, not the employees.”
If you feel your complaints aren’t being taken seriously internally, that’s when you’ll want to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In many states, submitting a federal complaint automatically triggers a state complaint as well, Vardaro said. “But it really varies state by state,” he added. “People should consult with an attorney before filing a charge.”
It’s illegal for your boss to penalize you for contacting the EEOC, Vardaro said, “but the reality is that retaliation still happens.”
“I always advise that once an employee makes an internal complaint or files a charge, they stay on the lookout for any changes in the way they are treated,” he added. “We often find it easier to hold employers accountable for retaliation than for the original discrimination.”
Applewhite said one of the most powerful ways for older people to push back against ageism is to resist hiding who they are.
“If you feel like you’re experiencing discrimination, I am really, really sorry,” she said. “If you have to dye your hair, or fudge your resume, no judgment. Do whatever you need to do.”
But, she said, “as long as we pretend we’re younger than we are, we contribute to the discrimination that makes those behaviors necessary.”
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.