When Jo Weech, an experienced recruiting professional, set out to find a new fulltime job in human resources and/or recruitment, she didn’t anticipate that it would be rough going. Very soon, however, the sad state of affairs for job candidates in the nation’s “over 40” age group came as a real shock to her.
Weech, currently founder and principal consultant at Exemplary Consultants in Washington, D.C., formerly worked as chief people officer at Anthem Engineering in Columbia, Md., and director of talent management at Red Alpha in the Washington, D.C. area. She encountered some stunning situations during her job hunt, which included applying for C-suite and director-level roles.
For example, following the tour of one company’s office, Weech mentioned that she didn’t see anyone in her age group. One of the principals told her it was because the company hires only young people.
“The person said, ‘We want fresh ideas. We are in our 40s, and we are the oldest people here’,” Weech said (she didn’t pursue legal action because ageism is arguably the toughest discrimination case to prove in court).
Weech’s personal experience is just a single convincing piece of evidence that ageism is alive and well in the American workplace — more than a halfcentury after passage of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Regardless of the law, businesses that are hesitant to hire older workers are probably missing, shall we say, a golden opportunity to tap into a vast talent pool.
While there has been some variation over the years, age-discrimination claims to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) overall have climbed 30% since 1999, an indicator that ageism is a growing concern in the U.S. workplace. For fiscal year 2017 alone, of the 22,430 charges resolved, 6,550 were decided in favor of those filing complaints at the cost of $90.1 million (that number doesn’t include monetary benefits obtained through litigation).
Further, in a July 2018 AARP national survey of adults older than 45, 61% of respondents said they have either seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, and 38% of those believe the practice is “very common.” (AARP, the nation’s largest advocacy group for seniors, boasts more than 38 million members.)
How does workplace ageism manifest itself? For about one-quarter of those surveyed by AARP, it meant hearing negative remarks related to their age from a colleague or supervisor; 16% cited not getting hired for a job they applied for because of their age; another 12% mentioned being passed up for a promotion or another chance to get ahead due to their age.
According to Michael North, assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, a “perfect storm” of factors have resulted in the growing trend of workplace ageism. For one thing, a rapidly aging population and significantly delayed rates of retirement have produced the oldest workforce in U.S. history.
“The workplace has not traditionally accommodated older workers, so employers don’t know what to do when workers stick around longer than perhaps was initially planned,” North said.
At the same time, the Millennial generation has emerged as the “most disadvantaged” in recent memory, North explained. The intergenerational wealth gap has reached a record high (households headed by someone 65+ are 47 times wealthier than those headed by 35-and-younger), he said, and younger segments of the labor force consistently face the highest unemployment rates by far.
“The two recent recessions have not helped ease these generational tensions, and I’m not even talking about the fact that, due to pessimistic solvency projections, today’s younger Americans may never get to reap the pension programs that they currently help fund,” he said.
So, the nation now has both older and younger generations feeling oppressed and excluded from the modern workplace, North said, adding that it’s arguable that each group has a valid reason to feel this way.
“It’s a major issue, and one that I am surprised has not gained more political traction in the U.S.,” he says. “But I imagine this will change over the next few years.”
One of North’s main academic focuses is how ageism is affecting employers. He’s trying to get at those who are actually engaging in ageism in hiring versus those who see aging workers as a potential talent pool. In other words, he is an advocate of capitalizing on older workers’ skills instead of resorting to ageism.
“Taking advantage of this talent is a great way to think about the aging workforce,” he said. “In other words, the workforce is aging no matter what. So if you want to be a forward-thinking organization, you might as well adapt accordingly to create value.”
North sees two major areas where employers can address the problem of creeping ageism: morality and practicality.
In moral terms, companies are increasingly prioritizing corporate ethics and social responsibility. To this end, he says, companies must ask themselves: Do we want to be known as a company that is ethical and takes care of its own, or one that kicks our employees to the curb when we deem (fair or not) that they have outlived their perceived usefulness? Do we want to be known as a company that prioritizes its historical organizational memory that has shaped our values, or one that is characterized by myopic, short-term thinking?
“We must be careful to recognize that not every company or industry necessarily answers these questions in the same manner,” North said.
“Nevertheless, employers of any shape and size need to ask themselves these types of questions as they attempt to adapt to a rapidly changing work landscape.”
On the practical side, given the aging workforce, any proactive business would adapt accordingly and figure out how to best utilize that talent pool. Consistently, surveys of managers and HR professionals find that most employers view their older workers as particularly stable, conscientious, emotionally mature and good with people.
“This is in addition to the obvious benefits of experience, which begets know-how in terms of both hands-on skills and ability to navigate organizational norms,” North said.
He thinks internal workforce assessments can help maximize aging talent as well as develop retraining programs geared toward accommodating older workers. Among the most common ways employers have adapted to the aging workforce are:
• Offering flexible, half-retirement options for older workers (as in, retirement does not need to be black-or-white)
• Prioritizing older worker attributes, such as loyalty and “soft skills,” in hiring and promotions • Creating new positions, or adapting old ones, designed specifically to facilitate the retention of older workers
• Altering workplace ergonomics to accommodate aging bodies, such as changing the size of computer screens or the surface of the floor.
North notes that a serious flaw in thinking by employers is that because of older workers’ experience, they are too costly to hire or keep. But that’s not necessarily true. “It is absolutely an upside of older workers that many of them are willing to work for less if the work is fulfilling,” he said. “Of course, we need to be careful not to assume that all older workers are willing to work for less. But the majority seems to prioritize work meaning over money. In other words, intrinsic rewards over extrinsic ones.”
Libby Sartain, the former HR executive (Southwest Airlines, Yahoo), author, speaker and first vice chair on AARP’s Board of Directors, has witnessed companies benefiting from a multigenerational workforce. She was at Southwest 25 years ago when the carrier hired a 60-year-old as a flight attendant, often stereotyped as a young person’s job.
“She said she wanted to work at least 10 more years, and she was great at her job!” Sartain said. “Why wouldn’t we want 100 of that type of employee?”
While some companies have discovered the value of hiring older workers, there is still a long way to go, Sartain says. Companies will benefit from hiring and retaining these employees because older workers are engaged, motivated, rich in applied skills and experience and are at a lower risk of turnover, she says, citing another AARP study that found older employees are 7% more engaged and 4% more motivated than those younger than 55. Workers younger than 50 also had a higher unexpected turnover rate (49%) compared to employees 50 and older (29%).
“Some companies really value and see the benefit,” Sartain said. “People who are older have more experience and spot problems quicker. They don’t run into problems they haven’t seen before, so they’re faster.”
Sartain also cites AARP’s Employer Pledge Program, a nationwide group of 600-plus (and growing) employers that stands with the organization in affirming the value of experienced workers. Employers on the list are “committed to developing diverse, high-performing organizations by leveraging workers of all ages,” according to AARP.
Sartain offered several basic strategies employers can implement to take advantage of the business benefits in hiring, promoting or retaining older workers:
• Include age in a diversity & inclusion strategy. Only 8% of companies include age categories in their D&I strategies, she said. Adding this metric enables companies to be more proactive in hiring and retaining older employees.
• Focus on recruiting older workers. In addition to the skills and experience older workers bring, they can help some businesses market to, and better understand, their client base.
• Create mixed-age teams. When managed well, multigenerational teams improve organizational performance for both older and younger workers, Sartain said. Age diversity has a positive effect on teams performing both creative tasks and decision-making tasks.
• Be flexible. Employees young and old benefit from the flexibility of being able to move among work, education and caregiving life stages. This flexibility can include offering work-at-home options, phased retirement programs that allow people to work part time and caregiving leave.
Older workers are blurring traditional lines between retirement and employment.
Weech said a recent LinkedIn article she posted about her personal experience with ageism in hiring — where she not only outlined the negatives encountered but also offered some positive thoughts on what employers need to do to reduce ageism — has been read by 172,000-plus people while she’s received more than 14,000 interactions, both on the thread and in direct messages.
“There are a few thousand people who have sent me their stories,” she said.
North predicts the pendulum eventually will swing in older workers’ favor.
“As with many societal movements, I see the Baby Boom generation reinventing ‘work lifespan’,” North said. “They are blurring traditional lines between retirement and employment, between what is considered old and what is not.
“The Boomer generation in general is notable for seeking meaningful experiences in later life, in the workplace and otherwise,” he concluded. “It’s a really admirable quality and one that employers can easily take advantage of to mutual benefit.”
Tom Starner is a freelance writer with WorldatWork.