Ageism in the Workplace

By Tasha Broomhall

Written by Maree Wrack  

Ageism is prejudging or making assumptions about a person, or people because of their age. Regarding employment, disadvantaging an individual because of their age happens when an individual’s experience, talent, wisdom, existing skills and future potential is hindered by another’s assumptions, misconceptions, and stereotyping, based on age.  

Ageism in the Workplace

Ageism affects all age groups in the workplace and is often considered the cultural norm.

Age discrimination

Age discrimination is ageism in action and in the workforce this means favouring certain age groups, and sidelining others.

The first national survey into age discrimination in the workplace in Australia, found that over 25% of Australians aged over 50, experienced some form of prejudice. Many said they suffered stress, mental health issues or diminished self-esteem.

The ripple effect is the negative impact on their families, finances and careers. This is powerful evidence of the senseless waste of valuable resources. The wisdom and experience of older workers in the workplace is being lost. There is also an increased strain on welfare services.

With increasing longevity, a person leaving the workforce in their 50s due to discrimination, may have an additional 40 years or more without paid work.

Common Complaints

Common complaints in the national survey were: missing out on training opportunities; being passed over for promotion opportunities; being considered too slow to learn new skills; and being judged about no longer having the appropriate skills. They were often the butt of ageist jokes, or threatened with the sack because of their age.

So what steps can you take to build an age positive culture?

7 Strategies To Reduce Ageism In Your Workplace

 1. Training and retention opportunities

The working lifeline of a mature worker today can generally be described as a linear model. Learn (education), then earn (paid employment) and then retire (conventional ‘retirement’). Be loyal, stay in your job, be consistent and you’ll be rewarded. It’s time to recognise that this old model is over, and ‘retirement’ is currently on life support.

Conversely, younger workers may have as many as fifteen careers during their working life. It is easy for older workers to think that younger workers aren’t loyal, or reliable. That’s an example of ageism, and it’s all-pervasive. Times have changed. Having many careers is the new model for the future.

Many workers feel unappreciated and disrespected. It’s time to be proactive in retaining them regardless of their age. Being able to maintain a strong knowledge base also saves countless hours, and the high cost in training new team members. Being proactive in developing, reviewing or updating your staff retention strategy will return dividends.

2. When will you be ‘retiring’?

Starting a dialogue with mature workers about when they are going to retire, is a conversation that most managers resist having. Mature workers are also reluctant to discuss the situation in case they are made redundant.

Everything can be resolved through communication. It is about working with each other; involving the leadership team of the organisation up front, and providing a context for where things are heading. The most important step is building trust. Everyone within the organisation needs to be confident and feel supported in sharing his or her plans well ahead of time.

3. Transition to ‘retirement’

Supporting mature workers in their transition to ‘retirement’ has countless benefits including increasing workforce participation. There is a tendency for people to place an emphasis on planning their financial future, while often overlooking other lifestyle aspects. Conversely, they may be thinking about ‘retiring’ in the next few years, but feel apprehensive about whether they will have enough money or not.

Providing training for employees in ‘retirement’ transition will support them to make informed choices. This is best done within an agreed transition time frame, with support from an external provider/program.

Adjusting to a new phase of life involves changes in structure and routine, so building a firm foundation at the beginning will make a lasting difference. Encouraging and supporting employees to create their future by make informed career and financial decisions, can extend their contribution as valued members of the organisation.

4. Health and wellbeing

Ensuring your workplace is taking steps to actively promote and encourage health and wellbeing through regular initiatives, will build a healthier workplace going forward. In terms of building a productive ‘ageing’ workforce for the future, the physical aspects of keeping fit are everything.

Encouraging employees to keep physically active, impacts on both physical and emotional health. Building a healthier organisation will result in a happier workplace that supports longevity.

5. Embracing age diversity

Leading and managing an increasingly diverse workforce has become one of the current agendas of the Australian workplace. With such a varied landscape of cultures and religions there is an increasing focus on diverse and inclusive workplaces. We need to also ensure that age positive values are being embedded throughout the organisation.

Age diversity is not just about specific initiatives for the ‘ageing’ workforce. Taking an integrated age diverse approach is important for achieving the best outcomes with any initiative. If you don’t implement it as an overall engagement, there will be a divisive response.

6. Issues of risk management

Providing a safe working environment is important to significantly extend the working life of valued employees. This involves developing and reviewing, or updating occupational health and safety strategies, to identify and address risks in the workplace. Actions regarding the prevention of workplace accident and injury must be addressed.

7. Time to take action – a workplace of meaning and purpose

In summary, we are heading for a demographic time bomb. Business will have to deal with it sometime, and the time to start is now. Like any cultural shift, it will take time.

Organisations that choose to act on the challenge of the ‘ageing’ workforce now by embracing age diversity and building an age positive workplace where work-life meaning and purpose count, will be the winners.

Maree Wrack

Maree Wrack is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) who specialises in building Healthy Inclusive Leadership Cultures – One Conversation at a Time.

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Image credit: Maria Lupan (Unsplash)

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