Companies are finally getting serious about diversity and inclusion.
These days, businesses are realizing the societal and economic benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce, and are going out of their way to stamp out unfair and outdated hiring and employment practices. But there’s one issue that’s still very much present in America’s workforce: Ageism.
Despite the fact that older employees are often the most knowledgeable and experienced members of the workforce, they’re often overlooked in favor of younger, less experienced workers.
We’re going to shed some light on the issue by delving into some cold hard facts on ageism in the workplace, including who and how it affects our evolving workforce.
What Is Ageism in the Workplace?
An in-depth analysis of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the technology industry.
Overview of Ageism in the Workplace
Companies looking to lead innovative approaches within their industries will need to tap into a range of perspectives, so veteran professionals should serve as key contributors with their extensive backgrounds. Yet these are exactly the workers who are often overlooked as businesses prioritize youthful energy over the invaluable knowledge that comes with prior experience. The statistics below illustrate some of the general challenges older workers face as they grapple with the realities of ageism.
Delayed Retirement Leads to an Older Workforce
Ageism has become a difficult issue to escape for many older individuals since retirement has become less easy to attain. The average age for retirement has risen from 62 to 66 over the past 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report. While some employees voluntarily stay in the workforce performing jobs they enjoy, careerism isn’t the only factor at play. Money still determines when workers can retire — if they can ever afford it.
Retirement is a major life milestone that requires plenty of savings in the bank, but many workers lack the funds needed to be able to retire comfortably. According to a 2019 Age Diversity Forum report, only a quarter of the U.S. population had stored up at least $250,000 in retirement savings. Zooming in on older age groups doesn’t improve the numbers, with the estimated median retirement savings for people in their sixties landing at $202,000.
Falling short of retirement goals means individuals will have to spend more of their later years in the workforce, and this trend increases the exposure of older workers to ageism in the workplace.
Age Discrimination Makes Employment Harder
As of 2020, workers 50 and older made up over a third of the U.S. workforce, and one in four U.S. workers is expected to be 55 or older by 2030. These gains may seem promising, but the participation by aging workers declines once they reach their late sixties.
While people in the 55 to 64 age range displayed a labor force participation rate of 64.7 percent in 2020, this number falls to 26.6 percent for individuals aged 65 to 74. The sharp drop-off in employment between workers in their fifties and late sixties is concerning, especially if many older employees don’t have enough saved up for retirement. Biased practices have made it difficult for veteran professionals to remain in the workforce, prompting legislative action to level the playing field.
Ageism Remains a Problem Despite Steps Taken
To combat ageism, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 provide protections for older workers. The former forbids all forms of age discrimination against employees 40 and older while the latter addresses other forms of discrimination in addition to age, such as race, sex and political affiliation.
Both laws have helped reveal the mounting toll of ageism in the workplace. From the early days of these rulings, the number of annual complaints has jumped from 1,000 to 5,000 all the way to more than 18,000 in 2017 alone. Companies have paid the price under the ADEA for age-based biases, doling out over $90 million in some fiscal years between 1997 and 2021 to victims of ageism. Some individual age discrimination lawsuits on their own have even cost businesses anywhere from $2.85 million to $250 million.
Still, legal restrictions and financial penalties have not been enough to eliminate age discrimination in professional spaces. To understand why businesses uphold these practices, it may help to explore who exactly experiences ageism and how often they face it.
Who Experiences Ageism in the Workplace?
A web of biases and assumptions has made it almost taboo for one to be holding down a job while being (what has historically been considered) of retirement age. Even if a veteran professional holds a respected position, that doesn’t mean they’ll receive the respect that comes with that position. Older workers have begun to fear that their age counts as a strike against them, and the stats seem to support this belief.
Age Discrimination in the Workplace Is a Common Issue
Ageism in the workplace is an alarmingly common problem. Not only do 62 percent of workers 50 and above believe older workers face age discrimination, but over 93 percent assert that ageism in the workplace is a regular occurrence. These findings speak to the pervasive nature of the problem of age discrimination in professional settings.
Granted, older workers aren’t the only ones who have to endure age bias. Workers between 18 and 34 years old are also 13 percent more likely to face age-based discrimination in the workplace than workers 55 and older. However, younger professionals don’t have to worry about some of the same factors and consequences of ageism that older professionals must consider.
Employee Preferences Contribute to Age Discrimination
Professionals 50 and up receive much more age-based discrimination than their younger counterparts. A 2017 survey revealed that 15 percent of respondents would not want a boss who was 70 years of age, which triples the number of respondents who said they would not want a 30-year-old boss.
It should come as no surprise then that professionals lose faith in their job security once they hit their 40s and 50s. After surveying 3,900 job-seekers and employees over the age of 45, AARP found that a third of respondents felt they could lose their job because of their age. Sadly, these fears align with the reality of hiring and retainment practices to a degree.
Ageism Leads to Lost Chances for Older Professionals
Biases have real-world repercussions for older workers, whether they’re pursuing a new opportunity or trying to hold on to their current job. The previous AARP survey also highlights that 12 percent of respondents believed they lost out on a promotion because of their age. Even if professionals are employed in a role, seven percent of respondents in the same survey claimed they had been fired, laid off or forced out of their positions due to age.
One might think that older workers are treated with more respect because of their age, but this is not the case. A 2021 AARP survey shows that 78 percent of older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, so negative age-based interactions are much more likely than positive ones.
It’s disappointing to see older employees receive such poor treatment, considering that they are proven to be more engaged employees who are more likely to stay with companies long-term. Nevertheless, age-biased trends hold true for all aging employees, regardless of gender, race and other factors.
Differences in Ageism in the Workplace
While age discrimination is something that people of diverse backgrounds encounter, it impacts people of different groups in unique ways. So it’s important to consider how ageism not only affects different age groups, but also groups centered around gender, race and ethnicity.
Women Are More Attuned to Ageism Than Men
As women have become an increasing presence in the workforce, they have also taken on a larger role in calling out age discrimination. According to AARP, 72 percent of women within the 45 to 74 age range believe ageism is a problem at work. This percentage overshadows the number of men in the same age group who notice ageism, which is 57 percent.
A heightened awareness of age discrimination has also encouraged women to file more reports. Men filed twice as many ADEA complaints as women back in 1990, but women began filing more complaints than men in 2010 and continue to do so to this day. Being a woman 50 and above may result in heavier consequences than being a man of the same age, but gender still isn’t the only variable to factor into cases of ageism.
Ageism Varies Among Racial Groups
Among the factors that overlap with and further fuel age bias, race is a key contributor. While the percentage of ADEA complaints submitted by white workers has declined by a third between 1990 and 2017, the percentage of complaints by Asian and Black workers doubled over the same period. Regardless of age, Gallup finds that 75 percent of Black workers experience discrimination in the workplace, as do 61 percent of Hispanic workers.
Race and ageism aren’t always connected, but both intersect and make life harder for people of color trying to navigate professional spaces. And these issues persist deep into one’s career. Even though Black workers below the age of 40 are twice as likely to endure discrimination than those above 40, 17 percent of the above-40 group still report workplace discrimination.
These variables add yet another obstacle for professionals to overcome, making it especially difficult for those looking to find a new job.
Ageism in the Job Search
It’s never too late to pursue a new career or dream job, and older workers have demonstrated this reality time and again. Veteran professionals remain a sizable portion of the talent pool, determined to begin the next chapter in their careers. However, age continues to be a key factor in companies turning down older applicants, and the tech industry needs to make major changes if it hopes to avoid being a culprit.
Older Workers and Retirees Seek New Opportunities
Even as companies choose younger workers over older ones, this reality hasn’t deterred aging professionals from carrying on their careers. Individuals between 55 and 64 who left the workforce have rejoined it at higher rates than younger age groups between 2020 and 2022. AARP’s research supports this trend, revealing that 13 percent of older people are still working or looking for work while considering themselves retired.
The later stages of life don’t mean one has to give up their ambitions and work ethic, yet businesses continue to push older members of the workforce out of their jobs. As high as 39 percent of 2014 retirees assert they were forced to retire, eclipsing the 26 percent of retirees who claimed the same thing in 1998. Ageism in the workplace has gained momentum, making it even harder for older workers to start fresh when seeking another position.
Age Discrimination Prolongs the Job Search Process
Ageism has become so pervasive that older workers believe it has compromised the job search process. In fact, 76 percent of respondents in an AARP survey believe that their job search will last longer than three months because of age bias. Unfortunately, hiring trends seem to give validity to this concern.
Global health threats and the ensuing economic consequences have impacted all workers, but older workers still bear the brunt of the job search woes. While 23 percent of individuals between the ages of 16 and 54 are considered long-term unemployed (they’ve spent at least 27 weeks looking for work), 36 percent of individuals above 55 fall into this same category.
Try as they might, older workers will never enjoy extended careers if companies don’t give them chances to prove themselves. It should then be asked why businesses across numerous industries don’t adjust their policies to account for age discrimination.
The Tech Industry Needs to Take Ageism More Seriously
Companies have failed to care for older workers, and the tech industry deserves some of the blame. Ageism in the workplace plagues all industries, but it’s still alarming that 76 percent of respondents in a 2018 Dice Diversity and Inclusion report claimed ageism to be a global issue within tech. In addition, an Indeed survey found that over 40 percent of tech workers believe their age could cost them their job.
Great wisdom can flourish within multigenerational teams, so tech companies are only doing themselves and their employees a disservice if they stack their policies against older populations.
Ageism Must Go in Order for a Better Workplace to Exist
Tech workers have made it clear that they want a more diverse future to look forward to within the tech industry, which means it’s time the sector faced the issue of ageism in the workplace. Age overlaps with areas like gender and race, so it’s unacceptable that only 8 percent of all diversity and inclusion programs consider age to be a core component.
While youth is often paired with tech and innovation, this is a false narrative. In reality, the average age of an entrepreneur at a startup company is 45. If tech companies claim to be disruptors, they should break away from biased practices and combat ageism and other forms of ableism by building more open-minded spaces where older workers are welcome.
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A previous version of this story was written by Bailey Reiners.