Reshaping Underlying Ageism Beliefs
At the 2021 Virtual NCWIT Summit, Janine Vanderburg spoke about the importance of addressing ageism in the tech workforce, and offered specific actions that can be taken to reduce implicit bias and reap the benefits of age-friendly and inter-generational workplaces. The following is an excerpt from her presentation.
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A recent survey by AARP found that 78 percent of people between the ages of 40 and 65 have either seen or personally experienced age discrimination in the workplace. However, out of all companies that have diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, only eight percent include age as a category.
Why is it important to consider age and ageism as part of diversity, equity, and inclusion? The world is aging and changing. A graph put out by the U.S. Census Bureau shows how the population of the United States is shifting. In 1960, we had a population pyramid, with a large number of younger people tapering up to a very small number of older people. In 2060, by contrast, it’s projected that we will see relatively equal numbers of people across the age span.
This is a massive demographic shift, and it requires a new way of thinking about what the workplace looks like. It is not going to be a race to see who can attract the most young people. We’ve got to learn how to accommodate older people, and not just accommodate them, but also think about what kinds of opportunities this shift could provide for us. Unfortunately, many of our current policies and practices are tailored to that 1960 pyramid.
The government defines the prime working age as between 25 and 54. Normal retirement age is considered to be 62 or 65. For the most part, we look at education and higher education as being front-loaded, rather than upskilling across the lifespan. All of those things are going to have to change.
We know that people are staying in the workforce longer. Before COVID-19, approximately one in four people age 65 and over was in the workforce. Across the United States, 250,000 people aged 85 and over were in the workforce last year. Yet many of our policies are not accommodating those realities. So I would encourage everyone to ask, what are the opportunities for all of us, knowing that people are living longer, and that many people want to and are able to continue to work? What can we do with the expertise and insight that older people have accumulated, and how can we use that to benefit our workforce?
The biggest barrier to reaping these benefits is ageism. Ageism is prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination against people based on age. It can be directed against younger people as well as older. But, we know that ageism has incredibly harmful effects, not only for individuals, but also on the economy. This prejudice can be as simple as saying, “I really don’t like having old people around,” or “Younger people are just smarter.” Stereotyping looks like making assumptions about what people can and can’t do.
Discrimination can take place at any stage in a person’s career. It can take place in recruitment
and hiring, when we use online advertising to target only people of younger ages. It can look like a job description that calls for “digital natives,” or that says we only want people who have less than three years of experience. Once someone is on the job, it can take the form of denying people the opportunity to participate in new training initiatives, or actually pushing someone out.
A study by the Urban Institute that was released at the end of 2018 showed that 56 percent of people who entered their 50s with stable employment in the United States were pushed out or laid off, and only 10 percent of them ever recovered financially. Older women and people of color, if they are laid off, tend to experience much longer periods of unemployment before they’re able to return to the workforce.
At the same time, the Economist Intelligence Unit in conjunction with AARP, did a study which found that in 2018, the cost of age discrimination in the workplace to the U.S. economy was $850 billion in lost productivity, and of that, $44 billion was the cost specific to the tech sector. Looking forward into 2050, the projection is that the tech and automotive sectors have the most to lose, and on the other hand, potentially the most to gain, if there are active efforts to recruit and retain older people in our workplaces.
Ageism: Underlying Beliefs
So why is this discrimination going on? Frameworks Institute did a study on how people think about aging and ageism in America. They found that a lot of the ageism we see is a result of deeply embedded cultural models or patterns of thinking that we have about aging itself, and about older people.
The first cultural model is the conflict between an idealized view of aging and the perceived reality. The idealized view is what I call the “pharmaceutical ad version,” where we’re on the beach holding a glass of champagne; it’s a time of self-sufficiency and leisure. The perceived reality of aging, on the other hand, is basically the idea that it’s a time of decline, loneliness, and dependence; it’s all about loss. This widely held view totally ignores what experts know, which is that as we age, there is an enormous opportunity for contribution to our communities, our workplaces, and our economy.
The second cultural model is called “us versus them.” In this case, we see older people pitted against younger people in the workforce, and more broadly in the community, in a competition
for resources. This sounds like, “If older people stay in the workplace, they’re taking jobs away
from younger people.” This belief ignores all of the economic studies that show the reverse is true: the longer people stay in the workforce, the better for everyone on a macro level, in terms of overall economic growth.
Individualism is a very strong theme, certainly, in America. It’s the idea that if someone isn’t doing well as they get older, it’s their fault. They didn’t make the right choices. In the workplace, it sounds like,“If Judy had just kept up with her skills…” In reality, studies have shown that older workers are much less likely to receive opportunities for ongoing training and upskilling than younger workers are.
The final cultural model is this idea of nostalgia. In the good old days, the economy was stable. In the good old days, we had pensions and Social Security was solvent. The challenge of this particular line of thinking is this: if we’re thinking about the good old days, we’re not able to think innovatively about the opportunities presented by an aging demographic. What would be the opportunities if we had people with a lot of experience and expertise who could work on some of our problems?
Strategies to Reduce Ageism
Research suggests there are three things that are effective in reducing ageism. The first is fostering intergenerational connection. This can take place in K-12 and higher education, and it can certainly happen in the workplace. In the same way that exposure to any group that is different from the group that you identify with creates increased awareness and understanding, fostering intergenerational connection is very effective in reducing ageism.
The second thing is training all managers on implicit bias. Research shows that when managers
are trained in implicit bias and are shown how to recognize it, this can help to stop bias in its tracks. This training must be embedded; it can’t be simply a one-off workshop, but must be reinforced over time.
And the third strategy is reframing our image of the older worker. Part of what we need to work on, instead of just relying on myths and stereotypes, is looking at the reality of aging, and viewing the older worker as a valuable source of insight, experience, connections, and resilience.
Research shows that older workers are very motivated to learn, though they may learn in different ways. They are also very motivated to exceed expectations, and they have higher degrees of engagement in the workplace, which can lead to productivity gains. They often have better communication skills and other soft skills. We know that older workers tend to be very loyal, and on average have four times the tenure of younger workers.
But the idea here is not to just hire older workers instead of younger ones. The real benefit comes when we have intergenerational teams. We know that when we have age diversities, similar to when we have teams that are racially, ethnically, and gender diverse, then we have improved team problem-solving and improved creativity. And we know that intergenerational teams increase productivity, and over time, profitability as well.
Now I want to talk about some very specific and concrete actions you can take to reduce the impacts of ageism in your workplace. First, include age in diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. This pushes people to consider what equity for people of all ages would actually look like in the context of your company.
Use age-friendly language and images in recruitment materials. If all of the images are of younger people, or if you are asking for high school graduation dates or saying, “We want less than X years of experience,” those are a kind of code telling older people, “We really don’t want you to apply.” There has also been a lot of discussion recently about bias that is built into algorithms, and this is really important to look at if you’re using algorithm-based application screening mechanisms. Finally, to refute the myth that older people don’t have current skills, use skill-based assessments.
There are other actions that can be taken to reduce the impact of ageism in the workplace itself. One of the best examples of this approach is BMW in Germany. BMW was faced with the question of what would happen if a large number of people all retired at the same time. For a relatively modest sum of money, they basically went around and asked the people, “What would it take to keep you here?” And, some of the things turned out to be really simple: instead of standing all day, maybe we could have high stools and flexibility in our work hours. Interestingly, out of the various workplace adaptations that were attractive to older people, some of them were specific to getting older, and some of them were the kinds of things that make a business attractive to anyone at any age.
Investing in training and upskilling across the talent pipeline is another way to reduce the impact of ageism. Instead of making the assumption that new arrivals get trained and people who are deemed promising get trained and move up in the company, ensure that at every point across talent pipelines, training opportunities are available.
Deliberately encourage reciprocal mentorship. A study released by AARP showed that 70 percent of younger people actually wanted mentorship and considered it valuable, and older people also had a desire to mentor. But, we want to take that one step further and realize that any organization can benefit when they encourage people to learn from each other.
Going beyond what happens in the workplace, we also need to think about the whole ecosystem, and look at policy. It is very important to foster education and training across the lifespan. Institutions of higher education have a strategic business imperative to consider older students as part of their target audience. In the U.S. workforce, development programs have historically been seen as being for younger people. There is now a push to encourage workforce development programs to also look at older workers.
So, it’s not just within your organization, but pushing the ecosystem around you as well to upskill older people. Ultimately, the change we’re trying to drive is this big idea that we can start looking at older people in multi-generational workplaces as a source of innovation that can drive our organizations forward, especially in times of great flexibility and uncertainty.
Janine Vanderburg leads Changing the Narrative, a campaign to change the way people think, talk, and act about aging and ageism. She chairs the Encore Network Leadership Council, and is an Encore Public Voices Fellow. Janine is also CEO of Encore Roadmap, which provides tools, inspiration, and workshops for capitalizing on the strengths of older adults.
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