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Ageism at work starts earlier than you think

New survey results from Fairygodboss reveal that men and women experience ageism in similar ways, but they deal with it differently.

Ageism at work starts earlier than you think
[Photo: :jacoblund/iStock]

While ageism isn’t a new concept, its prevalence in America’s workforce today is a dangerous bias that often goes undiscussed. The fastest-growing segment of the American workforce is employees aged 65 and older, according to AARP. And yet new survey results from Fairygodboss show that one in three people who’ve experienced ageism encountered it before the age of 45. This means that for as many as 20 years of a person’s life—or essentially half of their career—they may be vulnerable to experiencing ageism at work.

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Initially, we set out to discover if there were differences in the way men and women experience ageism and what those differences are. We were somewhat surprised when our research revealed that men and women experience ageism in comparable ways and at similar rates and ages. But they differ in the ways they combat it.

Only 28% of all survey respondents said they have personally experienced ageism at work, but almost double that number (44%) have observed ageism in their workplaces. The most common forms include negative remarks from coworkers about age and being passed over for a job opportunity due to perceived age-related reasons.

One respondent detailed an interview experience where the interviewer “asked me if I could guarantee that I could catch onto their software program in a few weeks. I explained that I had used other medical software programs and it shouldn’t be an issue. She kept repeating herself. It was as if she thought I wouldn’t be able to learn fast enough and keep up with the pace of the office.”

Another survey respondent said, “At my previous job, I was made fun of by a younger coworker because of my age. This coworker made negative comments to me every day he was there, calling me ‘grandma’ and doubting that I could do my job correctly because he thought I moved too slowly while performing physical work duties and that he claimed he could do much faster.” Comments like these, when internalized, have proven to have negative impacts on a person’s mental and physical health.

When it comes to combating ageism in the workplace, our survey found that women are 1.8x more likely to color their hair than men. Additionally, 31% of respondents who’ve experienced ageism report that they’ve sought out training on tech or other new techniques in their field as a way of dodging discrimination. Other respondents reported trying tactics such as: trying to omit their dates on their résumés, opting to wear “glasses instead of contacts because glasses hide the crow’s feet wrinkles around my eyes,” and watching shows, reading books, and listening to music that they wouldn’t normally in an effort to fit in with their younger peers.

However, the responsibility shouldn’t simply fall on employees to fight ageism. Eighty-seven percent of people believe employers can take action to combat both intentional and unconscious ageist practices. A majority of respondents believe that offering additional learning opportunities to all employees and avoiding discriminatory interview questions are the two most important actions employers can take, with encouraging mentorships between younger and older employees coming in at a close third. While gender diversity is widely discussed and should be a priority for businesses in ensuring financial and competitive success, age diversity is also a key component to success that companies too often neglect.

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In the meantime, until more measures like these are implemented and greater awareness around ageism is spread, concern for job security plagues many of today’s older workers. Almost half (45%) of survey respondents want to retire when they’re over the age of 65, yet 25% fear being pushed out before then because of their age. It’s no surprise that respondents who’ve already experienced ageism in the workplace are 3.6x more likely than those who haven’t to fear being pushed out of their job because of their age.

As America’s workforce continues to age and the cost of living increases, many people are forced to stay in the workforce past the traditional retirement age of 65 in order to support themselves. Of course, there are also some folks who want to continue working into their 70s and even 80s simply because they love what they do. If ageist practices are allowed to continue at work, however, older employees will be pushed out of the workplace and forced to retire even if they don’t want to or don’t have the resources to do so.

The diversity of ideas, experiences, and skills that a cross-generational workforce offers is invaluable. It’s time employers did their part in recognizing that, by ensuring ageist attitudes and practices no longer have a place in their workplaces, for good.

Georgene Huang is the CEO and cofounder of Fairygodboss.

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