Ageism in the Workplace

by Kerry O’Grady

The World Health Organization defines ageism as the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age. It affects both men and women, every day. In fact, it’s such a problem in the workplace, mental health professionals are beginning to explore how it can negatively impact overall wellbeing. What’s interesting about this discovery is that although ageism can affect our health, it’s largely ignored, especially by management. This isn’t necessarily because they don’t care. They often don’t know how to address the problem.

There are many misconceptions about ageism that need to be clarified. First, ageism isn’t limited to “older.” Younger individuals experience it just as much. If you’re older, you may be charged with no longer being “relevant” or worthy of a task or job; maybe not be “up-to-speed” on trends and ideas. If you’re younger, you risk not being respected, heard, or taken seriously by older colleagues, especially if you’re placed in a leadership position. Further, many people think ageism is subjective; something based in opinion. Or, sadly, something imagined by an individual. In the latter case, management may even assume the employee lacks confidence, is overly sensitive, defensive, or even – simply – a complainer.

Ageism is real; anything but a figment of the imagination. Management should always be taking the issue seriously. How someone feels should never be dismissed, especially in a situation that may affect their productivity.

So, how can we help eliminate ageism in the workplace?

Report It: Bystander effect is prominent. The more people there are to help a cause, the less likely an individual will contribute. We feel like “someone else” will help. This doesn’t help anyone. Everyone needs to do their part to combat it. The next time you hear someone make an age-related remark, report it to management as uncomfortable and concerning. Because it is. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what is right.

Be Introspective: Everyone perceives things differently. In that, there is no way to predict how someone will “take” an age-related comment. Maybe as a joke. Maybe as serious. Maybe as offensive. Since we don’t know how someone will receive the information, we are responsible for the words we use. Even something as off-handed as “I’m old enough to be your mother” or “Calm down. I’m not a child” can have a major impact on someone’s psyche.

Assume Nothing: Humans make assumptions. It’s completely normal. Where assumptions get dangerous is when they become stereotypes. Not all young people have “little” experience. Not all older people are “replaceable.” When we let thoughts like these creep into our mind, we start projecting those feelings onto others who fit the frame. Instead, let’s judge others on their professional contributions, which is the best indicator of talent and success.

In closing, a professional word to the wise: Age ain’t nothing but a number.

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