How to Handle Ageism in the Workplace

ageism in the workplace
Debbie Reslock

By Debbie Reslock | Sep 10th, 2020

Discriminating against someone based on age can have demoralizing consequences, but it can also be life-changing when it occurs at work. By either affecting your ability to fund a retirement or take away a job that gave you meaning and engagement, ageism can cause a devastating – and unexpected change in plans.

It may start subtly. After building a solid history with a company, you may notice the higher level project assignments now pass you by. Or you’re not being included in the latest training. Something has changed and it feels as if you’re being shown the door. You’re not being asked to leave outright, but are definitely being handed your hat.

It’s no easier if you’re searching for new work. You look great on paper with the right degree, experience, and references. But in the interview, someone asks awkwardly about your college GPA. Or what your 10-year plan is. You leave and only hear from them when they call with the message that they’re going with someone else.

These are both common examples of ageism in the workplace. Often referred to as the last acceptable prejudice, it also has the added distinction that every one of us at some time will experience its cruel effect. Even the 30-something who decided you were too old to fit in with the team will one day be experiencing that from the other side.

Ageist Ideas Start Early and Grow Strong

The reach of ageism in the workplace is far. A new study from ProPublica and the Urban Institute found 56 percent of Americans 50+ have or will face employer-driven job loss, including being laid off or leaving after feeling pushed out.

Sadly, we all contribute to the existence of ageism. The myths of growing older are tenacious because we’re exposed to its tenets as children. Most of us grow up without questioning their accuracy or our beliefs of what it truly means to be a certain age. We tend to keep this picture throughout life and even play a starring role in self-fulfilling the prophecy.

That it surfaces in the workplace is no surprise and can easily be accepted without question. Take a look at where you work now. Is training or team activities focused mainly on younger employees? Does the employee handbook talk about sexual harassment but not age discrimination? Are younger employees encouraged to take time off to attend their kid’s activities but older workers who need to leave early to take a parent to a doctor are not?

The reasons companies don’t want to hire older workers or may push for their retirement can range from wanting to save money to clearing management positions for younger people coming up the ranks. But it’s also based strongly on the incorrect beliefs that older workers are less enthusiastic, harder to work with and perform at a lower level.

The Financial Effect of Ageism

It’s been over 50 years since it became illegal for employers to discriminate against workers based on their age. And the sword cuts both ways as younger workers can also be judged by their age instead of abilities. But a 2017 AARP survey found three in five workers age 45 and older had seen or experienced age discrimination themselves.

With rising costs in housing and medical care, and without pension plans or savings, there’s less time to fund retirement when we’re older. We may be financially unable to stop earning and that’s a scary future if you can’t find work. Time is no longer on our side. For those who do lose their job and find new employment, the ProPublica and Urban Institute study found that only 1 in 10 were able to earn as much as they did before.

If more than half of us are in danger of losing our jobs, is there anything we can do? Here are some suggestions to help better the odds of survival.

5 Proactive Steps to Fight Work Ageism

  1. Position yourself to succeed. If you’re job hunting, research companies that are known for their anti-ageism views. We should all be active in fighting against this discrimination but change comes very slowly. Working where the older employee is valued is much easier.
  2. Don’t become your own enemy. Watch for self-deprecating remarks you make about your age or abilities. These can be hard habits to break. Speak up when others make comments about older workers. Don’t reinforce false perceptions.
  3. Keep learning, stay current on technology and make sure you’re up to date with any applicable training needed for your type of work. The digital world moves very quickly. You need to take an active role in keeping yourself relevant.
  4. Take age out of the equation. Yours and theirs. If you find it a struggle to work under someone younger and with less experience, figure out a strategy. Consider taking on more of a supportive position where you can help identify problems and guide toward solutions.
  5. If you’re being discriminated against, speak openly and honestly with the appropriate person at your company. If things don’t change, be prepared to deal with the issue in the way that works best for you and your circumstance. You have every right to take legal action but know that ageism is a hard claim to prove.

The Reality of Growing Older Today

Legal or not, the truth is that some companies hire or prefer younger workers. Look at their online photos. How many are over the age of 50 or 60? In some industries, you won’t see anyone over 40! There will have to be some concession though as more than a third of the workforce will be 50+ by 2022 and those aged 65+ are expected to be the fastest-growing segment through 2024.

At its most basic level, ageism is unfair. Right now, it seems as if youth is winning over age and experience, but don’t give up. We need education and examples. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with the years, but we’re all too smart to let go of the powerful asset older workers bring. This is one predicament we’re all in together. Regardless of our ages, we need to remember that discrimination diminishes the human spirit, no matter the target or when it occurs.

Debbie Reslock

Debbie Reslock

Debbie Reslock writes about and for the baby boomer and 55+ market, including the amazing journey of aging itself. Her blog, The Third Act, can be found at


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