Ageism at Work: How Older Workers are Fighting Back

Ageism in the workplace may not seem so obvious at first. Many working people have at least some awareness of how bigotry, sexism, and racism operate on the job, and may recognize discriminatory behaviors if they’re pointed out. Comparatively, age discrimination is discussed much less frequently, and as a result, it may not be top of mind to many of us.

Older workers are a part of many workplaces. According to the 2018 Current Population Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 9.7 million workers are age 65 and over, while 26.6 million workers are 55 to 64 years old. The Pew Research Center reported that more older Americans are working now than in previous decades, possibly as a result of the Great Recession of 2008.

All this is happening within a culture that reveres — even worships — its youth and often prioritizes the “new” way of doing things rather than the tried-and-true methods. (This topic was covered in the 2015 film, The Intern, in which Robert DeNiro’s retiree character becomes an intern for Anne Hathaway’s character at her millennial-focused startup.)

If you are an older worker already, or are approaching late middle age, you may want to take a serious look at how older workers are treated in your workplace. There are some things that you can do to address potential age discrimination in your workplace.

1. Keep your skills fresh.

Most professions will have aspects to them that are very different from what things were like when you began working. Every single industry changes over time; some fields, such technology and media, can feel like they change every few months, as new products develop and priorities pivot.

The core skills you developed throughout your career and your experience count for a lot. However, keeping your skills fresh — especially tech skills — is important to staying relevant in the workplace. (It’s also worth asking your company if they will pay for, or reimburse you, for any classes you take).

“Be a lifelong learner,” advised Laurie McCann, a senior attorney for AARP Foundation. “At every stage of your career, stay on top of developments in your field. Seek out training both at your workplace and on your own. Make sure your employer knows you are willing to undertake training to retain and gain knowledge and skills.”

Asking for more training can be a dicey prospect for some folks, though. The Center for Research Into The Older Workforce (CROW), based in the UK, acknowledged that older workers may be reluctant to ask for additional training by their employers out of fear that it will look like they’re unable to fulfill their current role.

If this is your concern, there are a lot of ways you can keep up to date on your own. Reading about current updates to your field in industry publications is one good option. You can also see if there are classes available in your area. Local continuing education programs usually offer courses where anyone can brush up on skills in a low-stakes environment.

General Assembly teaches classes on technology, marketing and professional skills development in 16 locations across North America, and offers coding “bootcamps.” The Tech Academy teaches coding courses online, as well as in Denver, Portland, Seattle and Salt Lake City. The Poynter Institute offers journalism classes online. And almost anyone can find an interesting MOOC — that is, a massive open online course — through edX, which offers free online courses open to all.

In addition to classes, you should also stay on top of current conversations happening in your field over social media. Follow the key players on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even Snapchat. (You don’t have to post on any of these platforms in order to follow other people).

2. Maintain your work ethic.

Adjacent to the advice to keep your skills fresh, you will also want to resist the perception of “phoning it in” at work — i.e. coasting along at work because our job feels settled-in and even easy. Most of us are guilty of phoning it in at least a little bit after we become comfortable in a job! However, even if you’ve been at a company or in a role for a long time, you don’t want this to become a regular thing.

No matter how seasoned you are in your career, it’s important to demonstrate a strong work ethic. In fact, according to a survey of HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management, the strongest skill that older workers have compared with other workers was professionalism/work ethic.

Your work ethic and your maturity are assets that you bring to the table — but these alone can’t compensate for your performance.

3. Focus on your skills, not your “over-qualification,” in job interviews.

Generally, we think of work experience as a net positive. But during a job interview with an older worker, both the candidate and the interviewer might be harboring concerns that the job seeker is too qualified.

This is a situation where ageism can occur, so, as the interviewee, you will want to proceed carefully with how you handle talking about your experience.

It is possible that you are too qualified and the job in question requires skills far below what you offer. In that case, you can chalk the interview up to just another networking meeting where you’ve made a potential contact. But if you do interview for a position that suits your current skills (and pay requirements), then you will want to frame your experience differently.

“Focus on your skills and achievements, rather than years of experience,” suggested the Ohio Department of Aging. “If over-qualification is a concern for the interviewer, focus on what you bring to the job beyond qualifications.”  

Sell your experience not as “over-qualification” for the role, but as a background of proven achievement that you’ll replicate in the future. In other words, sharing that you have 25 years in sales is a less meaningful piece of information than listing your consistency in achievements during that time and how you’ll continue to perform that way. You want to put the idea in the interviewer’s mind that what you have done before, you can do again. So, go ahead, toot your own horn!

4. Mentor younger workers (but only if they want you to).

This advice might seen counterintuitive — wouldn’t mentoring younger workers draw attention to your age and allow ageism to fester? Could it even potentially put you out of a job if you train the mentee too well?

Possibly, yes. You should, of course, read the room in your own workplace. No one wants to feel like she is training another employee only to be replaced.

That being said, one way to show that you’re committed to your company’s mission is to share your experience, skills and institutional memory with less-experienced employees. In these situations, you can allow the value of your experience to shine.

Of course, you should only mentor another employee if your manager has asked you to do so, and/or if younger employees have asked for mentorship. Your younger colleagues may justifiably feel condescended to if you start showing them “how things are done” when no one asked.

Another way to be a positive force in the workplace is to set a good example for other employees in how to behave professionally. Remember, you should position your experience, work ethic and maturity as assets. If your workplace has a lot of other employees without remarkable maturity or work ethic, your managers will likely appreciate these qualities from you very much!

To be clear, being the mature, experienced one in the workplace does not mean falling into an “Office Mom” role, or letting anyone call you the “Work Mom.” While it might sound like a cutesy, cuddly nickname, it’s actually pretty sexist and does nothing to counter ageist stereotypes in the workplace.

5. Be proactive about soliciting feedback on your performance.

When you have a lot of experience in a field, or at a particular workplace, you’re probably less likely to need hand-holding from management. That, of course, is a good thing for them. But it can be easy to slip into believing that you’re so competent and capable that you don’t need any feedback at all. (This attitude is the cousin of “phoning it in”).

All of us can benefit from feedback about our performance, no matter how much experience we have in a field or in a workplace. But especially if you are an older worker, it’s important to solicit that feedback. It’s imperative that you show your willingness to adapt and change, get ahead of any potential concerns, and course-correct if need be. “You need to know if there are concerns about your performance, so that you have the opportunity to address them,” said McCann.

Try not to feel awkward about asking for feedback about your performance from a manager who is younger than you or newer to the company. (It’s likely that this young’un already feels awkward about it!) As Alison Green wrote last year in her Ask A Boss column for New York magazine about managing an older worker:

“You might feel awkward having a conversation like this with someone who’s older than you. That’s actually a common way ageism does play out in the workplace, and you should make sure it’s not happening here. … It can feel weird to tell someone older and more experienced than you, ‘Nope, your work isn’t good enough.’ But as a manager, it’s part of the job — and it’s really unfair to her if you don’t give her the same feedback you’d give someone you were more at ease with.”

So go ahead and ask for the feedback.

6. Keep a record of discriminatory incidents.

You can only do so much when it comes to countering ageist stereotypes in the workplace. If you suspect you’re being discriminated against because of your age, document any examples of it in case you decide to take legal action.

The AARP warns, “Age discrimination can be hard to prove, so be sure to keep careful notes of any evidence.”

McCann recommended that you keep a written record of incidents “such as younger colleagues being promoted or recommended for training instead of you.” You may also want to save emails or screenshot Slack exchanges where ageist language is used by management. You should save any examples on a personal device so that you still have access to them in case your employment is terminated.

If you believe you’ve been a victim of age discrimination, you should speak to a lawyer who specializes in labor issues or reach out to your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on how to file a charge.

Final thoughts on ageism at work

All of us will age and most of us will age while still working full- or part-time. If you want to address ageism in your current or future workplace head on, there are a few steps you can take. You make an effort to keep your skills fresh, maintain your work ethic, be proactive about seeking feedback on your performance from your managers and make yourself available to mentor younger workers who will see you as a mature professional. When on job interviews, emphasize your achievements rather than focusing on years worked.

Jessica Wakeman is a journalist who focuses on women’s social, cultural and political issues. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Bust, Bustle, Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Cut, The New York Times, and numerous other publications. You can read her work here.