29 Apr 2019
On ageism bias in the workplace, and the myths underpinning it
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Defining “older worker” is as elusive as defining the middle class: It really depends on who you ask, and where you look. For the sake of this article, let’s say anyone over the age of 45 is in the category of older worker (full disclosure: This includes me).
For years we have been hearing about how the baby boomer is being replaced by younger people in the work force. But retirement is not happening at 55 or 60 any more, and our national work-force projections indicate that those older workers will be needed to keep the economy strong for many years to come. While everyone recognizes that the energy and drive of new workers is attractive to employers, many older workers are motivated, eager to succeed and to contribute.
Unfortunately, too many older workers I’ve met in my coaching frequently express frustration at perceived ageism, and in many ways talk themselves out of the job before anything is even offered. Comments such as “who is going to hire me at my age,” or “younger workers will cost less and give more” have become so commonplace that they are fuelling the aging stereotype, not by the employer, but by workers themselves.
The ugly reality is that ageism exists in many workplaces, much as it does in broader society. Fortunately for both workers and employers, much of this is a myth – and it’s high time for the myths to be broken down on both sides.
Younger workers are more educated and driven
Nope. They may be more recently educated, but more educated is not necessarily correct. While there have been rising rates of people entering the work force with bachelor’s degrees or higher, the increases have not been earth-shattering. Canada generally has some of the most educated workers among OECD countries, with 28.5 per cent holding university degrees and another 25.5 per cent holding postsecondary diplomas or university certificates, according to 2016 census figures. The total figure of 54 per cent had risen only 5.7 per cent in the decade since 2006. This perception also discounts that many people with long employment histories have invested in various courses, workshops and conferences, as well as other certificates and professional designations. They may have published work, sit on volunteer boards or have embarked on other professional initiatives that qualify as “equivalent experience and education” in many screening processes, but are harder to quantify and can easily be overlooked by lazy hiring processes that have a degree bias. Let’s put this myth to rest by agreeing that both a younger and older worker are going to bring a solid knowledge base for their level of experience and be as equally driven to succeed.
Younger workers are going to dedicate a good 10 or 15 years of their career to the company
Nope. Unfortunately, the social contract around work loyalty has long been broken, and younger workers are perhaps the most jaded group out there: They don’t expect or give blind loyalty, because they’ve not seen any tangible signs that employers are truly willing to give it. They have seen work come and go, such as contracts and temporary employment as they work through service-economy jobs.
Too often, they have seen their parents, family members and parents’ close friends laid off work, and witnessed first-hand what that can do to a family. Realistically, both employers and younger workers are first and foremost going to look after themselves, and younger workers are much more willing to move jobs if the next employer offers more opportunities for experience and interesting assignments.
So, if an employer is counting on someone dedicating a third of their career to them, think again. Both older and younger workers who demonstrate a good work history are likely to work equally hard and give it 100-per-cent every day, and age is not a factor.
Younger workers are cheaper
Nope. If they are, it is because they have less experience. If an employer wants someone who has 15 years of job experience, and a master’s degree in a particular field, a typical 30-year-old is not going to have those qualifications.
Also, there was a time when discussing salaries was a largely taboo topic. It was like telling people who you are voting for – seen as inappropriate. These days, salaries are discussed openly and there are many ways to find out what the relevant band range for many positions will be. There is reason for this: Pay equity is an important one of them, but also people compare compensation packages and use this knowledge as leverage. A younger worker is not going to be cheaper – he or she will just have less of the experience that the employer is needing.
So, let’s move beyond the myths on both sides. Ageism is a bias, more dangerous because it often can be unconscious on either side.
This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail.