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Ageism: Inexperienced or Out of Touch?

“But you're a child! You don’t understand what really happens in the office, and it honestly doesn’t concern you.”

This was casually told to a coworker who was 25 and had been working at the company for two years before I started as an intern. When looking around the workplace, there can be divisions between age groups and generations. This divide can hinder productivity as well as to the general wellbeing of employees and employers. In order to create a cohesive workspace, while also including all staff, there needs to be a recognition that age does not define your experiences or value. This can be challenging as there is not a united look at age-based discrimination.

There are two main groups targeted in age-based discrimination: adolescents and elders. Adolescent discrimination happens when an individual is judged as inexperienced or naïve solely due to their age. This ageism has been on the rise since a large portion of the workforce is entering a new age bracket. This can be seen with thirty-six percent of younger millennials and Generation Z saying that they have experienced some form of age-based discrimination within the workplace. With these fresh faces entering the workforce, there is a renewed perspective that since these individuals are younger, they fail to possess experience or valid feedback within the workplace. Broad stroking a person based on their age can create dissonance within a collaborative setting.

That being said, the older side of the workforce sees age prejudice that can be isolating and damaging. The older population of the workforce experience age discrimination when it comes to being seen as not in touch with society. Older workers are judged as being disconnected, less invigorated with new ideas, and opposed to change. This is a wide ranging assumption that forces older members of the workforce to be ostracized and excluded from important decisions, even though the elderly population is one of the fastest growing demographics. This preconceived notion that older individuals contain a lack of connectedness and work power, bolsters a societal push to alienate the workforce and create caricatures.

Ageism itself has been recognized, recently, as a global issue by the World Health Organization (WHO). This campaign was announced in 2016, with four teams conducting research on ageism. The move by WHO to research the impact of ageism opens a broader look at how harsh it affects the globe and the country. Ageism in the workplace can stunt the growth of an organization, but it can also cause a host of other societal issues.

The psychological and physical impact of ageism can be very detrimental to the wellbeing of many populations, young and old. With continual patronizing comments made off of the age of an individual, there is a subsequent negative impact on the self-image of said individual. There is also a loss of identity when older workers are invalidated as people and instead viewed as props or nuisances. This same invalidation is seen in younger workers, who are constantly discounted for their inexperience, which causes these people to undervalue themselves. These negative mental stigmas can begin to affect the body physically, with insomnia, abnormal diet, and stress. Not only that, ageism has been observed to take seven and a half years off of someone’s life. From the older perspective, people are viewed as forgetful or confused, which causes them to receive worse healthcare and less support.

The problems that ageism causes are not solely health issues, but also impact the workplace in other ways. For older individuals, the ageist attitude that they are disconnected with the way that society is going causes them to be ignored when it comes to potential promotions or advancements. They are often passed up for jobs and pay because there is a perceived lack of motivation and “renewed” energy. When it comes to younger individuals, they are often valued less or just seen as subordinates. This is exemplified by the use of girl, boy, or child in the work environment. These competing politics can ravage a business or organization, as it causes employees to develop self-preservation tactics and disregard the support of coworkers.

This is illustrated with the recent Coronavirus 19 pandemic. With a challenging line between on-site and remote work, there is an easy shift to infantilize older workers, while counting on younger workers to carry the bulk of the work with no compensation. Yes, individuals over 65 are considered higher risk, but organizations prefer to work in binary thinking which causes corporations to view older workers as a category of worker that is unable to be counted on. Their independence and virility as an employee is taken away as they are labeled as weak or put on leave because there is no equitable work solution in place. The absence of the older workforce, causes immense stress on younger workers who are still in lower-level positions that are asked to take on more tasks at the same pay. The interesting part is that this very drive that businesses are placing on younger employees will cause a greater resentment between them and the workers that are thought of as weak links.

To solve this issue, we have to approach the two demographics that feel the highest impact of ageism. A study was published by the American Psychological Association that found with more societal support for older individuals, there is a large decrease in ageism that is experienced by older individuals. This study also recognized that there was an increase in the ageism that younger individuals felt. The results of this study support the notion that there needs to be a multigenerational push to address the assumptions made based on age.

There is positive news when it comes to the solution of ageism. One of the WHO research teams mentioned above have been able to complete their study. This study analyzed how malleable ageist beliefs are within society. Upon three separate trials, the team found that ageist ideologies were surprisingly easy to correct with exposure and immersion into a generationally-diverse setting. There is an important delineation though between age-integration of employees and coworkers, and an intergenerational workspace that encourages collaboration efforts. Simply asking individuals to work together will not magically solve a lack of respect when it comes to age; instead there needs to be a conscious effort to value a worker as an individual regardless of age.

Whether a young or old professional, ageism is a problem that permeates all situations and affects the accomplishments of all. Due the the widespread nature of this discrimination (with recognition from large-scale organizations like WHO) there needs to be a positive spotlight placed on age diversity within the workplace. Having workers from different generations gives way to multiple perspectives that have had differential life experiences, and that can lead to higher innovation and employee morale. After all, employees need to feel that they can depend on one another without crucification based upon age.

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