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Coronavirus is changing work forever. Here’s how to make ageism a thing of the past

Massive layoffs, huge numbers of employees working from home, and companies pivoting to stay in business as a result of COVID-19 are demanding a mindset shift in thinking about older workers.

Coronavirus is changing work forever. Here’s how to make ageism a thing of the past
[Photo: Sushiman/iStock]

Older workers still confront unfounded and outdated assumptions about age and ability, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–51 years after a federal law outlawed age discrimination.

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And with 7% of employees saying they lost their jobs because of age discrimination, ageism is likely to become even more problematic. Today, Americans are both living and working longer, and by 2026, older workers will make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. labor force. With that in mind, managers should be aware of ageism and determined to achieve age diversity. This is especially imperative for the tech industry, where fresh, young talent is coveted and fewer than 7% of developers worldwide are 45 or older.

An invisible threat

This problem rears its head in the workplace in a number of ways, some more overt than others. It can begin with the recruitment process itself, when employers favor younger candidates by advertising for new or recent graduates. It also shows up when older workers are passed over for challenging assignments, left out of meetings or company activities, and excluded from prized learning opportunities. Older workers may be overlooked for promotions, and later, if a company downsizes, they may be axed first.

These tendencies are especially widespread in the tech world. There, fresh, young talent is coveted above all, while older workers—even those in their 30s and 40s—are seen as too expensive, less hard-working, and less adaptable to the latest trends. And instead of lessening in recent years, ageism in tech is becoming “more and more entrenched,” notes Norman S. Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California, Davis. Matloff, who has studied age discrimination in the technology fields, says the idea that “tech is for the young” is taken for granted in Silicon Valley.

But it needn’t, and shouldn’t, be that way—in tech or any other field, not least to avoid the threat of age-discrimination lawsuits. All companies and organizations need to rethink their approach in order to be proactive, rather than reactive, to the threat of ageism issues as they arise.

After all, it’s in their interest to do so. Consider the number of notable older people who have left lasting marks in business and other spheres. Ray Kroc joined the McDonald’s franchise at age 53, for example. Julia Child hosted her first TV cooking show at the age of 50, and Nelson Mandela became his country’s president at 76.

So long, workplace taboos

In addition to having more experience and institutional knowledge, older employees retain an incredible work ethic, often toiling longer and harder than younger employees. The National Council on Aging also found that older workers have lower absentee and turnover rates than younger employees. Companies that employ older workers have another advantage. They provide cognitive diversity, a factor that suggests organizations benefit by including people in their workforce who have different attitudes, skills, and modes of thinking. To encourage this, employers should create an inclusive atmosphere that welcomes people with different styles of processing information and problem-solving.

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To formulate a proactive strategy against ageism, organizations should first assess the current status of age diversity in their workforces. Then, consider taking concrete steps to implement age-diversifying policies, such as:

Offering flexible schedules. Scheduling flexibility can accommodate older workers of retirement age who need to keep important appointments, care for grandchildren, or simply want a less-demanding work schedule. Many older workers welcome part-time schedules, allowing for companies to benefit from their experience at a lower cost than would be possible retaining them full-time.

Providing reverse mentorship opportunities. These can benefit older and younger employees alike. Younger workers might bring older employees up to speed on cutting-edge trends, including in technology, while older workers, with their many years of experience in the field, can enhance the learning of younger workers.

Implementing proactive age-diversifying policies. These might include special learning and training programs to hone the abilities of older workers, off-site retreats to bolster their leadership skills, and creative benefits ranging from retirement-savings options to wellness perks, such as midday yoga-and-stretching sessions.

Smashing the ageism glass ceiling

Such measures will benefit companies in every industry, especially in tech. Matloff, the UC Davis professor, is a computer-science researcher and expert in statistical computing who cites himself as a case in point. “Experience does count,” he says. “As I grew older, my ability to write good code increased. It was easier to learn new programming languages, I could track down bugs more quickly, and better avoid bugs in the first place. Bad software can cost a firm millions and even cost lives.”

Age diversity is a vital part of overall diversity and offers the opportunity to create a more productive workplace. By bestowing years of wisdom on a younger generation and encouraging inclusion and collaboration across the board, organizations can inspire employee engagement even as they create a competitive edge.

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Stephanie McCleskey serves as vice president of operations at ThinkWhy.

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