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Age Bias in the Workforce: The More Common, but No Less Damaging Bias




According to AARP, one in five of the discrimination claims received by the Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are related to age discrimination. Employees and job applicants make these claims when they believe they have been treated less favorably because of their age. While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older, these types of claims and incidences are on the rise. Research suggests that age-related bias works two ways—young employees biased against older people and older biased against younger.

According to a 2019 study around Ageism in the Workplace, 44 percent of employees report that they or someone they know experienced age discrimination in the workplace, and 21 percent report having faced age discrimination themselves. While according to AARP, 64 percent of workers have witnessed or experienced age discrimination, it is more noticed as people enter their fifties, with 58 percent of workers noticing it first-hand. And companies are paying the price.

“Bias can be costly,” says Michele Ruiz, co-founder and CEO of BiasSync. “In the past decade, employers paid more than $810 million to settle age discrimination charges filed with the EEOC, with the average payout in age discrimination lawsuits being $219,00. That’s a lot of money being paid out for something that can and should be assessed and mitigated before it becomes an issue.”

And the impact does not stop there. Age discrimination can harm productivity, customer service, even product quality, as well as impact talent retention, including the loss of employees with strong experience, positive track record with the company, and institutional knowledge.

So, why, despite laws to protect workers over 40, does age discrimination continue to happen in the workplace, and how can organizations mitigate this form of unconscious bias?

The Bias Toward Youth

In this country, we have an obsession around youth. “Whenever you ask someone what age they consider to be old, it is usually someone that is 10 to 15 years older than they are,” said Heather Tinsley Fix, a senior advisor with AARP. “It is always a moving target what we consider to be old because of a pervasive focus on youth in our culture. We don’t want to be old. We don’t want to look old. We don’t want to appear old. That is why it (age) is always a moving target.”

However, with age comes wisdom and experience, which in some industries, is valued. “In medicine, we find value in physicians because older is wiser, but that same value is not held in technology world, where it is more about how fast and quick are you, at using technology, and the assumption age means inexperience,” says Dr. Bentley Gibson, a bias expert that focuses on the reduction of implicit bias in all age groups.

Regardless of skills or experience, there has been a seismic shift around the weight experience holds in a job seeker’s viability given the implication it holds around age. “There are many myths associated with age in the workplace, but the greatest of which, is that older people aren’t able to keep up with technology or continue learning,” added Tinsley Fix.” In fact, an older worker is often seen as less desirable, and the data is there to validate the growth of this perception.

In the technology industry, which has seen entrepreneurs create multimillion-dollar ideas that take society, and then our world, by storm, many early stage companies have tossed the idea of “with age comes experience” out the proverbial window, and actively seek younger workers, with job postings looking for “self-starters” with “new ideas” and “fresh thinking.” These are often perceived to be code words for young.

It no longer matters how much experience you've acquired—younger is perceived as being more innovative, quick, and hungry—and in some cases, even cheaper. Greying temples often means “more money,” and when business impact becomes part of a recruitment manager’s performance review, what better way to show positive performance, than through talent brought in and money saved.

Age-based Performance Stereotypes

Another reason age discrimination is so prevalent is the stereotype around older workers and perceived inability to perform tasks as easily or quickly, than younger workers. But this is not necessarily the case.

“In 2010, a German study around age, discrimination, and achievement, tested workers age 65-80 with those age 20 to 31 against series of tasks, and found productivity and reliability of work output was higher among older workers than younger. Older workers may have done less, but their work was error free, and more meticulous, while younger workers may have performed faster, but had more errors and inconsistencies,” said Tinsley Fix.

Speed should not be equated with efficiencies. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. And there are other functions, such as semantic memory, language, and speech, that improve with age. A 2014 study out of Brown University found that the brain’s ability does not decrease with age, it just moves to a different part of the brain. Older people were able to learn a visual task as well as their younger counterparts, and those who showed a strong degree of learning, exhibited plasticity in a different part of the brain than younger learners.

Older workers also use their brains differently to produce and make decisions, referring to a larger set of knowledge, including past experience. Younger workers may win a sprint, but an older worker will know of shortcuts to help them finish the race at the same time.

There is also an increase in more educated job seekers entering the workforce, and experienced workers staying in their jobs longer. With today’s young workers more likely than ever to have a bachelor’s degree, there is a combination of more workers coming into the workforce—anxious, and in some cases, champing at the bit—to earn money and gain experience, alongside an increase in workers age 55+, as more people look to stay in the workforce longer due to shrinking retirement accounts and other economic factors. Many people 65 and older also feel they are still productive and can make contributions past the age we normally associate with retirement.

Mitigating Ageism through Education

“At the root of discrimination against older workers is unconscious bias— there is a steady, anti-bias against older [people] that is held, and companies often lack the right strategy to mitigate it,” says Dr. Gibson.

There has been no greater time than now for companies to understand the presence of age-related bias in their workforce and its impact. By 2024, workers age 55+ will represent 25 percent of the nation’s workforce—with 67 percent of workers age 40 to 65, planning to continue to work after they turn 66.

The workforce will be a true melting pot of ages and backgrounds, that can benefit organizations and in fact, enable better success. Training and educating employees about ageism can help reduce discrimination and help employers identify signs of age bias promptly and take corrective action. Additionally, organizations must create and foster inclusive workplace cultures where employees of all ages and backgrounds can thrive. This means treating age discrimination no differently than it would discrimination related to race, gender, sexual orientation, or other protected groups.

Words matter

Many of us possess implicit biases, without realizing we have them. This can impact the way we engage with colleagues and even hire. Just as many leaders tend to hire people similar to themselves, rather than their qualifications, without realizing they are doing so, they also use words or language they may not understand is harmful or disparaging.

Organizations should ensure recruitment and retention efforts use appropriate language. When recruiting, be mindful of using words like “young,” “energetic,” or identifying a role as “perfect for a stay-at-home mom.” All can be seen as discriminatory. Consider avoiding altogether, what kind of person would fit the role and describe the role itself in detail. Instead, be specific with questions. Consider asking if a candidate has a specific amount of years in the field versus a summary of their work experience. Unnecessary information can be used against a company as proof that age influenced their hiring decision negatively.

The Role of Unconscious Bias

There is a larger societal sense that older people can learn from younger people and vice versa, and that in general, people enjoy working with different age groups from their own. However, the role unconscious bias plays in age discrimination in the workforce, is stronger than employers think.

While on one hand, there is a sense age bias is an acceptable form of bias that is easy to correct—with one recent study showing that with some training, a workforce with more neutral attitudes around age bias is possible within the next eight years—the impact implicit bias plays in age discrimination is much greater. “When we look at age discrimination in the workplace, without addressing the role implicit of bias plays. If it keeps going the way it is, at this pace, it will actually take 150 years to get to a neutral place,” says Dr. Gibson.

Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace is not just about numbers or programs. It is about people’s experiences. To understand how bias impacts your company, leaders need to understand where their organization stands and how to make effective changes in response to that baseline.

The time is now, to break down bias around age—both direct and implicit. BiasSync is the first and only workplace solution that combines current scientific research on unconscious bias with a measurement for individual and company-wide levels of unconscious bias and key associated measures. This includes a data-based standard that shows where a company stands on bias, even specific kinds, such as ageism, and specific work that needs to be done to mitigate and change behavior.

Updated: 04/2021

Not just diversity. Inclusion.

Diversity is not just about numbers. It’s about people’s experiences in the workplace. If you’re ready to understand how bias impacts your company—with data to make effective changes, contact us now.