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Yes, You Can Push Back Against Ageism in the Workplace

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Daryl Mooney, a 61-year-old business trainer and son of the legendary comedic writer Paul Mooney, definitely sees ageism alive and well in the workplace. “Unfortunately, there’s an ‘ageism programming’ that older people can’t do the job a younger person can do,” he says. “This myth persists: that older individuals don’t have the energy, the mind power or the ambition to achieve, or that their days are over or numbered. These ideas get propagated through media and society.”

According to The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2024, the American workforce will consist of 41 million people ages 55 and older—and of that group, about 13 million are expected to be age 65 and older. While this number is smaller overall compared to other age groups, the 65-and-older groups are “projected to have faster rates of labor force growth annually than any other age groups,” BLS reports.

Seniors experience ageism in the workplace

The aging face of the American workplace will undoubtedly bring new challenges for both workers and employers. For example, 61% of respondents to an AARP survey reported that “they have either seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace” and 38% of those believe the practice is “very common.”

There’s no way around it. Ageism exists in the workplace. And while 64% of corporations now employ diversity and inclusion initiatives, only 8% of them include age as an aspect of those initiatives. However, research shows that having an age-diverse staff can greatly improve an organization’s performance and lower employee turnover, when handled correctly.

Even 35 can be considered old for a new job

Life and business coach Heidi Medina was even faced with early-onset ageism after going back to college to earn a degree in information technology. “During my schooling, no one ever mentioned that finding a job at the ripe old age of 35 would be too ‘old’ to get a job working in web development,” Medina says. “Graduating at the top of my class, I spent almost two years applying for jobs, doing interviews and even volunteered to intern for free in attempts to break into the industry.”

Many older professionals reenter the workforce after taking a break to care for children or parents, or going back to college to learn new skills. Some professionals retire later, or even reenter the workforce after a short retirement phase. Here are some ideas to make the most of your time in the workforce as a senior member of the team.

Good News, the Ageism Tide May Be Turning

More companies are trying to conquer ageism in the workplace, especially as research shows that the more diverse a team is, the more successfully it performs overall.

  1. Work teams with diverse ages increase productivity. Productivity among work teams increases when employees are engaged and happy. A recent study by Ricoh found that 71% of U.S. employees believe a cross-generational workplace is an asset to a company, and 76% of them enjoy working with colleagues from all age groups. The recent Diversity Matters report from Kinsey found that companies with diverse teams are more likely to yield above-average financial returns.

    Mooney knows firsthand that working with age-diverse teams is better for everyone. “As a bonafide 61-year-old ‘young’ man, my life experience has been of individualism, as well as working for the betterment of the collective,” he says. “I’ve learned to work with a team or group as a leader or an employee in the workplace. A life lesson for me has been that with others, you have to learn to let go of ego and merge your personal power within the context of planned group achievement.”

  2. Diversity and inclusion policies are changing. At PNC Financial Services Group, one of the largest diversified financial services companies in the United States, the management team established a Corporate Diversity Council. This council’s main objective is to involve departmental leadership in diversity and inclusion processes, where they can learn new strategies to hire, train and develop a more age-inclusive workplace. Many other companies also are expanding benefits to include those older employees who are now caretakers for their elderly parents or spouses.

  3. Companies are reinventing workplaces. One of the best examples of this comes from BMW. When executives realized that by 2020, roughly half of the workers in the Dingolfing, Germany-based plant would be over the age of 50, management needed to come up with a solution. A team of laborers and experts suggested using special ergonomic chairs and building exercise rooms to keep employees physically comfortable while working. They went even further by installing floors that were more comfortable, giving older works orthopedic shoes, and installing computer screens that were easier to read. These ideas were implemented around the world in 2012.

5 Proactive ways to combat ageism in the workplace

If you’re an employee of a certain age, you’ll most likely face ageism in one way or another. However, we’ve got five powerful ways that seniors in today’s workforce can turn the situation into a positive one.

  1. Use your expertise to lead others. A crucial aspect to keep in mind for older employees is to make sure you aren’t participating in reverse ageism. For example, some Baby Boomers think Millennials are lazy and not as committed to their work.

    However, “keep an open mind and be willing to work well with the younger employees instead of criticizing the Millennial generation,” says Stan C. Kimer, president of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer. Kimer himself enjoyed a diverse and successful 31-year career at IBM and then after retirement, formed his own diversity and career development consultancy business.

    Kimer acknowledges that ageism exists in the workplace and believes that much of it stems from the stereotyping of experienced older employees as slow, set in their ways, unable to adapt to change, and being paid at too high of a salary. However, turn those ideas on their head by instead using your knowledge and years of experience to enrich your younger co-workers’ career paths.

  2. Become a mentor. Ageless Innovators is a revolutionary Chicago-based co-mentoring program. It’s the brainchild of a coalition of entrepreneurs and business professionals which includes The Village Chicago, an active community of older adults who are often retired. Ageless Innovators pairs two professionals—one younger and one older—in the same industry. These partners are expected to attend two live events together and collaborate for 10 hours over the six-month program. They learn from each other, and many then become lifelong confidants.

    If a program like this exists in your company, consider joining. If one doesn’t exist, contact your HR representative and suggest your company begin a similar program on a smaller scale. There may be some community-based programs, such as Ageless Innovators, in your local area as well. The skills and tools you learn from your mentor/mentee relationship will expand your relationships in your 9-to-5 job.

  3. Never stop learning. Kimer suggests that experienced workers like yourself never stop honing their skills or learning new ones. “It’s important for older workers to be continually growing and updating their own skills so that they don’t become obsolete,” he says. “It’s important to become a continual life-long learner, if you aren’t one already.”

    Medina suggests that older workers look for ways to get new certifications and training, and not to be afraid of new technology. “When applying for work, use current techniques such as video applications instead of writing,” she says. “Keep your LinkedIn profile up to date, posting regular updates that demonstrate your skills and knowledge.”

  4. Get involved outside of the office. Many companies offer employment enrichment activities outside of the office environment to increase rapport, friendship and team-building among employees. Don’t shy away from participating. A 2010 report from the Hay Group showed that companies with high levels of engagement enjoy 2.5 times greater growth than their peers and a 40% reduction in staff turnover. You can even suggest great activities, like a departmental one-day retreat or some friendly team competitions.

  5. Take care of yourself. Focus on your wellness so you bring your A-game to work. Although it's sometimes hard to find the time, make sure you prioritize staying fit. Try to make sure you address changes in your vision and age-related (sensorineural) hearing loss. Beyond work, healthy aging helps you in all aspects of your life.

Smart ways to combat ageism

What is the key to combating ageism? Your ability to put a positive spin on what could hold you back at work. It’s important that workers of all ages become engaged and invested in their careers, both in and out of the office. You, as an employee, have the power to turn ageism on its head.

“Continue to improve your job skills,” Mooney says. “Observe your current workplace’s rhythm and energy—and help move the energy in a positive direction. You may even get a raise or promoted for your good work and positive energy. Teach and help grow those who are younger than you. Never forget: Your wisdom and experience are valuable.