Global Ageism Weakens the Workforce of Today and Tomorrow

It started with the Great Resignation, then the Great Unretirement, and now with an uncertain economic future, it is hard to predict who will comprise tomorrow’s workforce. One thing is sure, however, that the focus and time invested in how workers over fifty are treated during this turbulent work environment will reap benefits for future generations.

Why this particular focus on this sector of the workforce? Estimates state that a quarter of all workers in developed countries will be over 55 by 2030.1 Yet, despite the significant percentage of “age-experienced employees,” most companies have demonstrated that they prefer to do everything they can to displace and discourage rather than employ this workforce sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic had many impacts; one less published was the substantial number of workers leaving the workforce. The highest percentage of those departing were older workers who faced two pressures; those with increased health risks and others selected to be prime early-retirement targets. This exodus may have gone unnoticed in a typical work environment, but amid new crises of cost-of-living escalation and savings devaluation, this workforce sector aggressively seeks new opportunities with an unwelcoming outcome.

What are the factors behind this most recent surge in ageism, and are there viable answers to reverse shrinking opportunities for the plus-fifty workforce? Unfair hiring practices, open discrimination of senior workers, subtle negative innuendo, and blatant hostility are all conditions faced by workers over fifty. The solution begins by educating companies about the value these employees bring to the workplace but includes equipping older workers with additional training to be more competitive and preparing them for some of the obstacles they will encounter.

 

The Challenge of Today’s Work Environment

Plunging stock values, rampant inflation, and real estate devaluation are all contributing to turning most people’s retirement dreams into a hopeless nightmare of increased economic demands with a rapidly shrinking nest egg to support even basic needs, let alone long-range retirement. Today’s financial situation is forcing more retirement-age workers into the active labor force, but that environment is far from welcoming. A recent CNBC survey found that most retirees would consider returning to work. Unfortunately, finding the right job isn’t always easy, and getting an offer is elusive.18

Combine this active economic disaster with steady changes in the face of the world’s workforce, and the urgency to provide viable options becomes more apparent. The labor force itself is changing as people across the globe live longer. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), an international group of economists based in Paris, with more than 38 member countries, predicts that by 2050, more than four in ten individuals (that’s 40%) in the world’s most advanced economies are likely to be older than 50. 2

In the U.S., job vacancies have outpaced job applicants each year since 2018. This variance is primarily a result of baby boomers retiring at a rate faster than millennials can replace them. To keep the economy growing, companies need to encourage and incent older people back to work and give them relevant, essential jobs.3 This solution may seem trite, but age bias is a serious hurdle.

There is much talk about gender bias, racial bias, and cultural bias at work; each is important for many reasons. However, one of the most prominent and problematic types of discrimination we face is age bias: it is increasingly common to evaluate people based on their age, which creates significant stigma in the workplace.

An Unwelcome Workplace Environment

Josh Bersin wrote on this topic recently based on a study his research team at Deloitte conducted on approximately 10,000 companies.3 Their inquiry was this, “Is age a competitive advantage or competitive disadvantage in your organization?” Although the answer may not be startling, the number of people holding this view is troubling. More than two-thirds of the companies considered older age a competitive disadvantage, which coincides with data from the AARP shows two-thirds of individuals aged 45 to 74 have experienced age-related discrimination.3

Succinctly, this study concludes that if you are older than 45, you are seen as less capable, less able to adapt, and less willing to get involved personally or do something new than your younger peers. On the other hand, the AARP article cited above also said that professionals ages 50 through 70 have experience, expertise, maturity, and perspective as unique assets.

“Age discrimination, just like other forms of discrimination, is wrong, but it is sadly all too prevalent,” said Bill Rivera, senior vice president of litigation with AARP. Research shows that 62% of workers aged 50-plus reported having personally seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Fifteen percent said they were not hired for applied jobs because of their age.4 A survey this year highlighted the age-bias concern when 84% of workers reported that they had witnessed age discrimination firsthand. 7

The challenge with ageism is that age shows no color, race, religion, sex, etc. Most of us aspire that good health and circumstance will allow each of us to experience “old age,” though it is doubtful that any of us would wish to face adverse treatment for something that no one can control.

People, all people, will get older, and as they do, it is inevitable that they will face some form of discrimination and workplace bias. The number of U.S. workers ages 75 and up is expected to increase 96.5 percent in the next ten years, with many expressing ‘we must work until we die’ mentality.21 Unfortunately, most Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs do not include age as an included focus. A 2022 study by Live Career, Older People & the Workplace, 2 revealed interesting age-related findings tied to age-based stereotypes and discrimination. More than 1,000 workers were surveyed to “investigate their opinions about older people in the workplace.” Here are the highlights of that study.

  1. Eight in ten respondents claimed age stereotypes were still alive in the workplace.
  2. Forty-three percent of those surveyed said 40-plus is old. Twenty-six percent said 50-plus is old. And 21% said 60-plus is old. So, if you are 50, with 15 or more years until retirement, 69% of the people you work with think you are old.
  3. 74% of the respondents aged 50-plus said they had been fired because of their age.
  4. 86% aged 50-plus felt that most job postings were addressed to people younger than them.
  5. 72% of respondents claimed that older employees were a target for workplace bullying.
  6. 77% of the respondents said: I haven’t been hired for a job because of my age.
  7. 69% said: I’m afraid to lose my job because of my age.

Global surveys support the prevalence of age discrimination, particularly in the high-tech and finance sectors. In 2018, the American Association of Retired Persons, conducted a survey in which 61% of workers 45 and older reported seeing or experiencing negative age responses. A study by the Urban Institute and ProPublica 1 published  that same year found that 56% of workers 50 or older were relieved of longtime jobs before they chose to retire. Additional research reflects that discrimination against elderly job applicants is so pervasive that it has influence before they share any pertinent capabilities. This was evidenced when researchers submitted fictitious resumes designed to be as identical as possible except for age. The outcome consistently demonstrated that older applicants received fewer callbacks than younger ones. (Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation – National Poll on Health Aging) 16

Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation – National Poll on Health Aging 9

Research data only reflects a systematic effort to discourage older candidates from accessing available employment opportunities. The subtle effort to discourage and eliminate older workers includes career sites featuring pictures of a young and racially diverse workforce, desired experience targets that never exceed a decade, and the inclusion of sundry technical skills with certification requirements that have only emerged in the last five years. Less subtle is the design of many talent acquisition systems which allow “smart systems” or “artificial intelligence” to automatically identify workers over a target age by pulling graduation dates and employment history start/end dates that are outside of desired age ranges to eliminate any consideration of workers above a determined age maximum.

Finally, overt harassment and bias have resulted in numerous technology and healthcare companies, which many hold to higher standards, facing multiple age discrimination lawsuits. To fight ageism, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 were put in place to provide protection for older workers. Unfortunately, annual complaints have increased in multiples from 1,000 to 5,000 to a volume above 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. 5

Urgency for Change

Increasingly, companies have started looking to attract mature workers for urgent reasons. First, with two open jobs for every worker in the nation, the labor market is as tight as anything experienced in the past two decades. More firms are struggling to recruit and retain talent, which mandates alternate strategies. Data shared by employee scheduling company Homebase demonstrates that “seniors are more engaged, more likely to look forward to work, more connected to their companies, and less likely to consider leaving for greener pastures. This increases the viability of older workers, especially in the current tight labor market,” said Jason Greenberg, head economist at Homebase. 22

Job vacancies have outnumbered job applicants since 2018,3 and that trend is holding. Most of this is due to baby boomers reaching retirement at rates faster than millennials filling employment gaps. Economic growth rests heavily on the ability of companies to bring older people back to work and provide meaningful, rewarding, and important work. Many companies focus on hiring younger and cheaper workers rather than older employees, perceived as more expensive despite valuable expertise. Contrary to the prevailing belief, older, more tenured people have creativity, entrepreneurial approaches, and insights fostered through life experience. As an outcome, people over the age of forty are three times more likely to create successful organizations because of their patient and collaborative nature. Companies that want to see growth, innovation, and collaboration need to act and give them more opportunities.

A recent survey by CNBC showed that 68% of people who retired during the pandemic would now consider returning to work, and there are several factors that make this urgent.Positively, people are living longer, and the overall quality of life for people beyond sixty improves each year. This is something we all should celebrate; we are all living longer. It is notable that the average longevity of human life increases by three months each year. Life expectancy in the U.S. was 47 years at the beginning of the 20th century. Today average longevity is 79 years, and by the end of this century, it is expected to reach 100. This increases the value proposition workers over fifty offer the workplace. 6

The Value Proposition of “Older Workers”

There are several factors that increase the viability of the plus-fifty workforce. The myth propagated by the retirement industry and many branches of government is that everyone over 65 should retire in a mandated, must-happen approach like age-dated milk. The premise here is a one-size-fits-all approach that, regardless of circumstance, action needs to be taken on a specific date because something is no longer good based on the passage of a specific length of time.

Significant efforts have been made, and billions of marketing dollars have been spent selling all of us that the “golden years” we all must desire includes travel, golf, and lounging by the pool in retirement communities. The reality is that research demonstrates that people who stop working and retire without new meaningful activities often suffer from depression, heart attacks, and general depression due to a lack of purpose and meaning.

Not surprisingly, many who have enjoyed long, active, and meaningful careers do like to work and would prefer to continue working and contributing to the workforce. Stephen Hawking 3 observed: “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” Work represents an opportunity to give value to others and to a broader community. A regular job provides a network of friends and co-workers to associate with, and it provides a focus for intellectual and physical energy. Added to this, it provides financial reimbursement for the work effort enhancing the viability of extended financial health.

There are many industry leaders, corporate CEOs, political leaders, entertainers, and active people from all walks of life and locations who are leading active lives and making contributions in diverse arenas. Eighty-one percent of S&P 500 CEOs fall between 50 and 65 years of age with less than ten years in their current role. The following table shows the leaders and ages of the Fortune 50 CEOs. 8

All this suggests that age does not dictate a one-size-fits-all for the aging global population, and positively the data supports it. The trend in the coming years is likely to be for more older people in the workforce, a result of demographic changes (the proportion of the population aged over 50 in advanced economies is projected to rise from 37% in 2020 to 45% in 2050),9 increased longevity, countries raising the retirement age (or abolishing it entirely for people who wish to continue working) and underfunded pension schemes forcing people to work longer. Additionally, employers who do not employ older adults may face a talent shortage of experienced and knowledgeable workers.

Where do we go next?

Today’s reality is that everyday ageism is prevalent on a global basis, and without immediate attention, it will not get better. Unfortunately, mass media has demonstrated a consistent bias when it comes to age and what is considered valuable and vital. Plus, people over fifty are often ignored in movies, television, and advertisement, so it is not a stretch to see that trend continue into the workplace. People over fifty are completely absent from the covers of fashion, sports, and beauty magazines. Future research is needed to understand how social institutions like businesses, social media, education, and government are influencing how each new generation perceives and responds to aging and the elderly. Attitudes and beliefs are heavily influenced and shaped by all these institutions. Further research is still required in these key areas to help ensure that we can improve the lives and functioning of the elderly, but the time for action on injustice is now.

The economy, our present geo-political unrest, and the growing numbers of people affected by inaction only continue to grow. However, many older adults also hold positive perspectives about aging and continue to make an impact in the workforce. Older adults who hold a positive view on aging report less everyday ageism and higher levels of physical, social, and mental health. Aggressively promoting the benefits of aging and the many contributions of older adults in families, communities, and the media will positively impact overall perceptions of aging and help safeguard older adults from further negative consequences of ageism.

In societies with growing-older populations, failure to address systemic age bias and its impacts will not only frustrate the desires of an increasing number of older individuals who wish to remain productive and active – inaction will negatively affect economic growth, competitiveness, innovation, and social progress across the broader society.

People want to see change, and there is strong support for addressing age discrimination as a priority. Unfortunately, ageism is a product of our American culture that must be acknowledged, discussed, and addressed in this generation. Additional consideration of the impact of negative stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination toward older people through major public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic may help challenge assumptions that contribute to ageism. Acknowledging and responding to everyday ageism will have far-reaching benefits for the health and well-being of older adults and our overall population.

Ageism deserves at least the same energy that is being expended on DEI. Sooner or later, since the passage of time is unstoppable, each one of us will get old.

Endnotes

1 All About Age Discrimination at Work and Why Successful Lawsuits Are Rare https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/all-about-age-discrimination-at-work-and-why-successful-lawsuits-are-rare/2022/09/12/bd6a7066-32ad-11ed-a0d6-415299bfebd5_story.html, Chris Dolmetsch and Katharine Gemmell, The Washington Post, September 12, 2022

2 Forty-Three Percent Say 40-Plus Is Old:  Discrimination in the Workplace, https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2022/10/30/forty-three-percent-say-40-plus-is-old-discrimination-in-the-workplace/?sh=542a196d79b3,  Shep Hyken, Forbes, October 30, 2022

3 Age and Generational Issues, The Case for Hiring Older Workers, https://hbr.org/2019/09/the-case-for-hiring-older-workers, Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic, Harvard Business Review, September 26, 2019

4 Age Discrimination Among Workers Age 50-Plus, https://www.aarp.org/research/topics/economics/info-2022/workforce-trends-older-adults-age-discrimination.html,  AARP Research, July 2022

5 “Early Career’ Recruiting Strategies Risk Age Bias Liability, https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/early-career-recruiting-strategies-risk-age-bias-liability, J Edward Moreno, Bloomberg Law,  October 5, 2022

6 Great Unretirement:  How to plan for people working longer, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/10/great-unretirement-older-people-working-longer/ , Aidan Manktelow, World Economic Forum, October 31, 2022

7 Ageism in the Workplace Is Rampant: Here’s How To Fight Back Against Unfair Treatment. https://news.yahoo.com/ageism-workplace-rampant-fight-back-120146225.html, Gabrielle Olya, Yahoo News, October 19, 2022

8 America’s Most Innovative Leaders, https://www.forbes.com/lists/innovative-leaders/#7f7d60f826aa, Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr and Mike Hendron,  Forbes, September 3, 2019

9 The Great Unretirement: Nearly two-thirds of recently retired workers would consider returning to their jobs, survey shows, https://fortune.com/2022/06/07/great-unretirement-recently-retired-workers-consider-returning-to-jobs/,  Will Daniel, Fortune, June 7, 2022

10 Are older workers getting ‘quiet-fired’? https://www.marketwatch.com/story/are-older-workers-getting-quiet-fired-11666972748?mod=retirement, Richard Eisenberg, Marketwatch, November 1, 2022

11 Population Ageing: Alternative measures of dependency and implications for the future of work, https://www.ilo.org/employment/Whatwedo/Publications/working-papers/WCMS_747257/lang–en/index.htm,  Claire Harasty and Martin Ostermeier, International Labor Organization, June 8, 2020

 12 Workers In Their Late 30s And Older Face Ageism In A Recession—Here’s How To Fight Back, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2022/10/17/workers-in-their-late-30s-and-older-face-ageism-in-a-rcession-heres-how-to-fight-back/?sh=463b71f21b51, Jack Kelly, Forbes, October 17, 2022

13 Exploring the Health Effects of Ageism, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/23/health/ageism-levy-elderly.html, Paula Span, The New York Times, April 23, 2022

14 Growing Old Is Something We’re All Doing. So Why Is Ageism So Prevalent? https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2019/03/05/ageism-gerontocracy-ashton-applewhite-this-chair-rocks, Alex Schroeder, WBUR On Point, March 5, 2019

15 Why ageism can’t be allowed to grow old gracefully, https://www.hcamag.com/asia/specialisation/diversity-inclusion/why-ageism-cant-be-allowed-to-grow-old-gracefully/425320, Emily Douglas, Human Resources Director – Asia, October 27, 2022

16 Ageism in the Workplace: Statistics to Know, https://builtin.com/diversity-inclusion/ageism-in-the-workplace, Matt Urwin, BuiltIn, August 24, 2022

17 Everyday Ageism and Health, https://www.healthyagingpoll.org/reports-more/report/everyday-ageism-and-health, Julie Ober Allen,  University of Michigan National Poll on Health Aging, July 2020

18 Aging in America: Ageism and General Attitudes toward Growing Old and the Elderly,  https://www.scirp.org/journal/paperinformation.aspx?paperid=78445, Ragota Berger, Open Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 5 No. 8, August 2017

19 10 Things You Should Know About Age Discrimination, https://www.aarp.org/work/age-discrimination/facts-in-the-workplace/, Kimberly Palmer, AARP, September 1, 2022

20 Who’s Working More? People Age 65 and Older, https://www.aarp.org/work/careers/surging-older-workforce/,  Kenneth Terrell, AARP, November 22, 2019

21 ‘At 75, I still have to work’: millions of Americans can’t afford to retire, https://www.theguardian.com/money/2021/dec/13/americans-retire-work-social-security, Michael Sainato, The Guardian, December 2021

22 Over 50 and looking for a job? Here’s what you need to know about age and work, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/07/10/what-older-workers-should-know-about-finding-jobs-with-top-employers.html,  CNBC Work, Cheryl Winokur Munk, July 10, 2022

Dan Vander Hey
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Dan Vander Hey, vice president of advisory services at Spencer Thomas Group. Vander Hey is a nationally recognized HR transformation, strategic sourcing, and human capital technology expert. He’s an author, speaker, and consultant to Fortune 1000 Companies in areas focused on human capital management, best-fit process optimization, and innovative people practices. For more than two decades, he has designed and deployed a wide variety of enterprise systems, including PeopleSoft/Oracle, SAP, ADP, Workday, Ceridian, and UKG. He holds an M.A. in psychology from Humboldt State University and a B.A. in psychology from Biola University. He can be reached at  Dan.Vanderhey@Spencer-Thomas.com.

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