How to Deal With Ageism Without Alienating Yourself

We’ve all had these thoughts: “She’s so young to be in this job!” or “She’s too old to keep up with the demands of this job!”

That’s ageism and it’s everywhere.

Young workers, especially those in leadership or other powerful positions, often face criticism because they have little experience doing their jobs and haven’t earned respect from others yet.

On the other hand, older workers often hear they don’t know the new technology and can’t keep up with how things are now.

Understanding that ageism exists in the workplace is the first step in learning how to best navigate it in your workplace, without alienating yourself from your bosses or coworkers.

What is ageism?

Ageism in the workplace can manifest itself in many ways. Common complaints involve being:

  • Not hired because of age, either too young or too old.
  • Passed over for promotion or raises.
  • Overlooked for challenging assignments.
  • Left out of client meetings or company activities.
  • Laid off, fired or forced out.
  • Denied access to training or professional development, and those opportunities go to others.
  • The subject of negative remarks about your age from a colleague or supervisor.
  • Denied time off for family commitments because you either are older and don’t have young children at home or are young without kids.

“While it’s not difficult to define, it is difficult to combat because too few people believe it is important to do so. Ageism is not taken as seriously and not viewed as being as wrong as other isms,” says Laurie McCann, a senior attorney at the AARP Foundation.

“Ageism is subtle and sneaky. Ageism, like age more broadly, tends to sneak up on us until one day we look around and wonder why we suddenly feel that a new generation that we don’t understand all that well is coming on fast,” says Michael S. North, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management and organizations at NYU Stern School of Business, who has done extensive research on ageism. “Age-related jokes and jabs are so socially condoned people overlook them as a form of ageism. Think of birthday cards that make negative jokes about getting old and things like that. You could argue that ageism is the last socially acceptable prejudice in many ways.”

How prevalent is ageism?

In 2018, AARP issued a report called “The Value of Experience: Age Discrimination Against Older Workers Persists,” which talked about the prevalence of ageism in the workplace.

The September 2017 survey of 3,900 workers age 45 or older who are working or looking for work predicted that by 2022, 35% of the workforce is projected to be age 50 or older.

The report also found 61% of older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Women are more likely (64%) than men (59%) to have seen or experienced age discrimination. Of those who experienced ageism in the workplace, only 3% made a formal complaint.

“There are many reasons why people don’t report age discrimination on the job. For one, they may want to devote the time and resources towards finding a new job if they had been terminated,” McCann says. “Other reasons might be lack of awareness of their rights under the law or believing that complaining would be futile.”

Some types of ageism are more underreported than others.

“Age discrimination in hiring is probably the most underreported because individuals simply don’t have the evidence that the reason they aren’t being hired is because of their age,” McCann explains. “They might have a hunch or a gut feeling that their age is the problem but, in most cases, do not know who was hired and so don’t know if they were younger and less qualified.”

History and legislation about ageism

Robert Neil Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, came up with the term ageism in 1969 to describe the discrimination and stereotyping of older people. He defined ageism as a combination of three related things:

  • Prejudicial attitudes towards older people.
  • Discrimination against older people.
  • Practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older people.

Ageism relates to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which became law in 1967 and forbids discrimination in the workplace against anyone age 40 or older. This act means age is a protected characteristic in workplaces, and employers cannot use age as a way to discriminate in hiring, firing, promotions and work assignments. Companies with fewer than 20 employees are exempt from the ADEA.

“Ageism is notoriously difficult to prove, legally,” North says. “There may indeed be legitimacy behind a company’s decision to lay off an older employee for not being a good ‘cultural fit,’ making it difficult to point to age as the determining factor. Moreover, the Supreme Court ruling of a few years ago made it so that the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff to determine that age is the sole or primary reason for a layoff or other potentially discriminatory action.”

So, by definition, ageism is only about older adults, however, it has taken on a more general meaning in some cases.

“Without a doubt ageism can manifest in all directions, including the younger side of the spectrum,” North says. “I think one of the most prominent examples of ageism against youth is the knee-jerk tendency to dismiss their views as uninformed, naive or entitled.”

This type of treatment of the young is not new.

“The funny thing about young-targeted ageism is that it is a pattern that has repeated throughout history. When Boomers were young, they were often criticized for lacking professionalism and being too entitled. [Does that] sound familiar?” North says.

Sadly, for young people who think they might be victims of ageism, no legislation exists to protect against this kind of ageism. The legal protection only exists for people over age 40.

Proving ageism in court can be difficult, so trying to nip it in the bud before it disrupts your work environment can be helpful.

What to do if you encounter ageism

Even though legal protections exist for ageism for older adults, proving it in court can be difficult.

“If you suspect you are being treated unfairly based on your age, it may not hurt to let your employer/supervisor know that you are aware of your rights under the ADEA and/or state law, McCann says. “Sometimes, [employers] assume you aren’t aware of such protections.”

Supervisors might ask for details, so make sure to keep notes about any statements about your age or incidents of younger colleagues being treated differently than you are. Write down dates, times and witnesses to conversations.

Even though younger workers are not protected legally, talking to a manager about your concerns might make a difference in how you are treated.

If you choose to file a formal complaint, there are time limitations. McCann says charges of age discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) must happen within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory action. It’s 180 days in some states.

“Reporting your case to the EEOC is a key first step, as they would be your strongest initial advocate, and a necessary step toward starting the legal process. Sadly, your odds of winning your case can seem slim, and the process daunting. But it’s worth a shot, especially as such charges become more common,” North advises.

“Defy the stereotypes, ask that you be judged on your ability to do the job, not your age,” McCann says.

Diversity makes a better workplace

While some workers do face discrimination because of their age, the workplace writ large is an evolving landscape that has room for all. The industries growing at the fastest pace are often the ones that need more workers of all ages. And research shows that age-diverse work teams are more creative, productive and collaborative.

“Like the main argument advocating for diversity more broadly, it is important for workers and managers to recognize that there is value to be gained from people of different ages,” says North. “Generally speaking, managers report positively vis-a-vis older workers’ conscientiousness, emotional stability and experience, and compliment younger workers’ energy, enthusiasm and facility with new technology. However, we should be very careful not to fall prey to stereotypes, and to acknowledge that many older workers do not lack energy and are perfectly adept with new technologies, while many younger workers are conscientious and emotionally stable.”

So while it’s important to know your rights to notice and combat ageism in the workplace, it’s even more important to know your worth.

Tiffani Sherman is a freelance reporter based in Florida. She loves to travel and learn about people and cultures in different countries.