Ageism in the Workplace

When I started working at my present job, nearly nine years ago, and I casually made reference to my age—35 at the time—my boss joked, “How does it feel to be on the other side of 35?” I saw then that he was speaking only partially tongue-in-cheek. As I soon learned, he is obsessed with age. He boasted to me that he is almost always on-target guessing people’s ages. He also has made reference to “women of a certain age” when discussing the perils of high-definition video cameras (fortunately, he proclaimed that I “passed the high-definition test.”)

For those reasons, I was surprised to read last week about a study that found men experience worse ageism in the workplace than women. “Although women are more likely to experience harassment in the workplace, aging hits men harder when it comes to advancing their careers. Insurer Hiscox’s 2019 Ageism in the Workplace Study found less than one-third of women felt their age had been a barrier to finding a new job since turning 40 years old, compared with 43 percent of men,” Anne Stych of bizwomen, a part of The Business Journals, writes.

Findings are findings, but is this one hard for you to swallow, too? After all, how often do you hear of a man in his early-to-mid forties described as “boyish,” especially in politics or in the case of a man who gets appointed to a high-level executive position in business? I don’t ever—not even once—remember hearing any accomplished woman in her forties or fifties described as “girlish,” do you? 

I joke with my friends that women age in dog years. When I make that joke, I’m primarily speaking from a reproductive perspective, as, without medical intervention, the typical woman can’t conceive and carry her own children past the age of around 45 (and that’s being generous), while men can—and do—have children until they are at the geriatric stages of life. Beyond reproductive terms, men fare better than women at aging from a cultural perspective, which affects our work opportunities. 

Did you know a Top Gunsequel is in the works? I was excited to learn this, still remembering watching the original in 1986. As it turns out, nearly all of the male leads are returning to reprise their roles, but not the female lead, Kelly McGillis. How about that? I read that she has health challenges, but I also read that she wasn’t even asked to return. All of the original actors are 33 years older. And you can’t say they all have aged well. The difference is the standards for an aging woman are more stringent and unrealistic than they are for an aging man. The older woman is typically expected to look more like herself as a young woman than the older man is expected to look as he did as a young man. 

In the workplace, the perception of women and age is complex. On the one hand, there is less generosity when women don’t look as they did when they were young. I’ve never heard anyone say an older woman looks more distinguished or stately, as I have about men after they’ve acquired that crinkle around their eyes and the first streaks of silver in their hair. On the other hand, a woman also can’t look too young and attractive. I have observed that even some self-described progressive men have a narrow conception of what an intelligent, competent woman looks like. Spoiler alert: She isn’t young and attractive. She is typically the matronly woman of older years who looks more like she would grace the cover of the old Lear’s magazine than Cosmopolitan or Vogue.

Here’s a hypothesis on why men report ageism more than women: Most non-minority men have never experienced any “ism” of any kind, so when even the smallest touch of a change in perception toward them becomes apparent, they remember it and file it away as an injustice. Women are more used to being slighted and under-valued than men. So when ageism finally presents itself, many may not even think about it. It’s just more of the same.

The question for Learning professionals is: How can you teach a culture—or maybe nurture a culture with subtle actions—that perceives both older men and women as valued members of the workforce? Like the flexibility needed by young parents in the workplace, older people at work also need lifestyle accommodations. A flexible schedule that allows a seasoned employee time to enjoy life while continuing in a fulfilling job will keep more of your most valued workers with your organization longer. What other allowances could you make to create a workplace that older employees find livable? Could the option to transition into a part-time or freelance role be presented regularly to older workers? 

Your oldest employees, like your youngest, aren’t necessarily your best by virtue of their age, but at least some of them are. You have a vast repository of knowledge and practical experience to draw from—if only you recognize its value and figure out how to keep it from leaving you for something better. 

How does your company show older employees that they are valued? What kinds of programs, or accommodations, do you offer your most seasoned workers?

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