Sadly, ageism is still rife across the globe, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) reporting that one in two people are ageist against older adults. The impacts of this are huge, producing various harmful outcomes, such as multigenerational divides, and older adults not receiving the health care they need or gaining access to employment.
When it comes to the workforce in particular, research from the Centre of Ageing Better (CFAB) showed that more than a third (36%) of 50-69 year-olds feel disadvantaged applying for jobs due to their age. For example, our survey of 1,000 job-seeking Rest Less members revealed that 70% of over 50s said they would consider a career in hospitality – yet 88% think the sector prefers to hire younger people.
But ageism in the workplace doesn’t stop there. Many over 50s already in jobs are also facing unfair treatment. Research from HR provider, Cipher, which looked at the most common types of discrimination brought to employment tribunals in England and Wales in 2017/2018, found that ageism came in second (12%) behind disputes related to equal pay (62%).
As well as being unjust, ageism in the workplace also means that employers are losing out on top over 50s talent. And, with 70% of the UK’s employment growth over the last 30 years coming from this age group (ONS) – and fewer young people entering the workforce due to declining birth rates and rising life expectancy – it’s never been more important for employers to take steps to create an age-inclusive company culture.
However, one of the first steps towards doing so is gaining an understanding of what age discrimination in the world of work can look like, in its various forms. So, with that said, here are seven examples of ageism in the workplace.
Stereotyping can affect both older and younger workers, and is where assumptions or judgements are made about people based on their age.
For example, stereotyping might mean assuming that older workers are less adept at using technology than younger workers – or that older workers are resistant to change, less adaptable, or less interested in career development.
Stereotyping fails to recognise people as unique individuals; and instead lumps them together into categories – often as a result of ignorance or outdated views. And, sadly, what typically follows is marginalisation in the form of unequal treatment, limited opportunities, and even harassment.
Marginalisation – the original meaning of which was “to write notes in the margin of” – is usually the result of stereotyping and happens when someone is made to feel of lesser importance than others in society. They’re essentially sidelined and made to feel small.
In the case of marginalisation at work, once someone has been labelled with a stereotype, they might…
- Be excluded from important meetings (such as those on tech or future strategies)
- Have their opinions and suggestions ignored
- Be placed in roles that offer limited opportunities for growth and development
While marginalisation can be achieved explicitly or more subtly – sometimes as the result of unconscious bias – it can be incredibly damaging, not just to an individual’s confidence, self-esteem, and happiness at work, but to organisations too.
Companies that lose employees due to marginalisation will lack diversity. This means that they’ll have a much narrower range of ideas and perspectives, making evolution more difficult – especially in an ageing population.
Microaggressions are subtle, often unintentional comments or behaviours that convey discriminatory messages. Both stereotyping and marginalisation can be examples of microaggressions. Because subtle, these actions may seem harmless on the surface but can create a hostile or unwelcoming environment, perpetuating ageism.
Microaggressions may be disguised as a compliment or joke, with a hidden insult about a specific group of people hidden inside. For example, “You’re surprisingly tech-savvy for someone your age,” reinforces the stereotype that older individuals are less proficient with technology. In contrast, comments like, “You’re so young, what could you possibly know?” can undermine the competence of younger workers.
It should be said that the ‘micro’ in microaggressions doesn’t mean that these actions have a small impact on the person on the receiving end of them – but instead, refers to the fact that they happen casually and frequently in everyday life, often without any harm intended.
Addressing age-related microaggressions involves fostering awareness and education about what they are, and promoting respectful communication to create a more inclusive workplace.
4. Age bias in hiring processes
As we’ve seen from CFAB research, more than a third of those over 50 feel disadvantaged when applying for jobs – and this is something that we regularly hear from Rest Less members too.
It’s not uncommon for this feeling to start with a job advert itself. It might contain language that has younger connotations, such as ‘looking for a recent graduate’ and/or someone who’s ‘dynamic’ and ‘innovative’. Though over 50s are capable of meeting these criteria, the societal connotations can hint that a company is looking for a younger candidate, which can be off-putting for older workers.
Many over 50s looking to transition into roles that don’t directly align with their experience and skill level may also be branded by employers as ‘overqualified’ – and overlooked as a result. Or they may not be chosen for progressive roles due to the incorrect assumption that older adults have little interest in career development.
For more information on how age bias can impact hiring processes and what you can do to make your company’s recruitment more age-inclusive, check out our article here.
5. Rebranding roles
Role rebranding isn’t unusual and is an example of ageism that sees older employees being informed that their role is being phased out because it’s no longer needed at the company. However, a company will then advertise the same role under a different title and hire a younger candidate.
An example of this can be seen in the situation that occurred at J&M Industries in America, whereby they repeatedly asked a 65-year-old employee to retire – directly asking “When are you going to retire?” and “What is the reason you are not retiring?”
After informing the company that she had no plans to retire, the employee was told that her role was going to be eliminated due to economic uncertainty. Then, after less than a month, the company hired a man in his 30s as a purchasing agent – the same role they claimed had been eliminated.
It’s important to note that a company can only make a person retire if the particular circumstances can be adequately justified. You can read more about working past the State Pension age on the NI Direct Government Services website.
6. Selecting people for redundancy based on age
In situations where companies are making redundancies, some companies will make voluntary redundancy offers to older employees based on assumptions that “they will be retiring soon anyway”. However, by law, employers cannot just offer redundancy to age groups eligible for an early retirement package – as this could be unlawful age discrimination.
Another example of selecting people for redundancy based on age is only selecting part-time workers in a situation where most are older.
There also used to be an upper and lower limit for statutory redundancy pay, which meant that some employers would be more inclined to make over 65s redundant based on cost. However, these limits were removed in October 2006 – so now all ages qualify for statutory redundancy pay.
Age harassment can take various forms, including all of the examples listed above. But, in extreme cases, it may escalate to explicit bullying.
Examples might include offensive comments made about the natural signs of ageing (such as baldness or wrinkles) or age-related nicknames or terms (including ‘senile’, ‘okay, boomer’ and ‘dinosaur’).
Addressing ageism requires a proactive approach from employers, including clear policies, education programs, and a commitment to fostering a culture of respect and inclusion where individuals are valued for their skills and contributions rather than their age.
It’s also important to remember that ageism is illegal under the Equality Act 2010 – and employers discriminating against a person because of their age can be taken to an employment tribunal or court.
For more information on how to create a more inclusive company culture, you might want to check out our article on the subject. You can also get in touch with us by emailing [email protected] or filling out a form here.
Is your company age-inclusive? Have you needed to take any steps to tackle ageism? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.