All of us, if we are lucky enough, will live long enough to face discrimination because of our age. And while we like to make fun of the inevitable with phrases like “just having a senior moment” -because the alternative (death) is ostensibly worse – ageism in the workplace is no laughing matter.
What is ageism?
Ageism was first coined in 1980 by Robert Butler. The first step to prevent or push back against workplace age discrimination is to recognize it. A single off-hand comment by a boss or coworker does not constitute harassment or ageism. But ageism is insidious. Those who study ageism in our society and the workplace note that older people do have a harder time landing a job when applying and interviewing. We are advised to “color our hair” to hide the gray, and not mention the year of our graduation or too many earlier jobs that might indicate how old we really are.
The irony of ageism
Ageism is much like racism or sexism because it is a belief that people of a certain age are not as good, capable or worthy as younger people or workers. Yet, most younger people who espouse ageist opinions and beliefs will one day be older themselves, and likely face the same discrimination. This is why Todd D. Nelson, a psychologist at California State University, calls ageism “prejudice against our future selves.”
It’s important to note that in 1900 the average life expectancy was just over 47. Since the 1960s that number has shot upwards of 70. In 2016 life expectancy in the US was 78.69, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A couple of centuries ago things were very different. Families lived together- children, parents and grandparents. The “old” were a part of our daily lives.
Nelson posits in his book, Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons, that the reverence and need for our old people faded with the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution. Before written material was readily available older people were revered in the household and community because they held the information that was not otherwise attainable. Today, with an overabundance of accessible technology, this wisdom is not longer perceived as valuable or necessary.
What to do about workplace ageism
Ageism is illegal. If you are not hired, not promoted, laid off or harassed for being “older” (typically over 50, according to the AARP), then speak with an employment law attorney about your rights. Recourse is available.