How To Create Age-Inclusive Environments in the Workplace

Of all the differences between people that can strengthen a workforce, one that’s often added last to the list is age.

This applies to both older and younger workers. An experienced Generation X employee in her early 50s and a 22-year-old recent college graduate from Generation Z both add value to an organization. But either one can face age-related discrimination.

Ageism is something every organization should make a priority, especially in light of the current makeup of the workforce. Many Baby Boomers now work into their 70s and even 80s. At the same time, Millennials have entered their prime earning years and the first wave of Gen Z is entering the workforce. Today’s managers oversee a multigenerational workforce that includes five distinct generations:

  • Traditionalists (76 to 99 years old)
  • Baby Boomers (57 to 75)
  • Generation X (41 to 56)
  • Millennials (26 to 40)
  • Generation Z (25 and younger)

Employers can benefit from this generational mix working together. But they must first understand and combat ageism.

What Is Ageism?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines age discrimination – otherwise known as ageism – as “treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age.” The ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act) forbids age discrimination against those 40 or older.

Federal law specifically prohibits discrimination in any aspect of employment. That includes hiring, firing,  job assignments, promotions, pay, layoffs, training, and reducing benefits. While the ADEA applies to companies with 20 or more employers, many states now have laws protecting older workers at small businesses.

ADEA also protects older workers from harassment, sometimes employed to get people to quit rather than firing them. Harassment doesn‘t include simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren’t serious, according to the EEOC. But it does include frequent, offensive or derogatory remarks about a worker’s age that create a hostile work environment.

How Ageism Affects Younger Employees

Notably, ADEA does not protect younger workers. The EEOC states that “it is not illegal for an employer or other covered entity to favor an older worker over a younger one, even if both workers are age 40 or older.”

However, some states have passed laws that essentially extend the protections of ADEA to younger workers in an effort to combat “reverse” age-related discrimination that targets younger workers. According to a list from the National Youth Rights Association, those states include Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.

Such laws can help younger workers who often must manage a host of issues that previous generations did not face. In an interview, Rosi Prescott, Chief Executive of Central YMCA in the United Kingdom, said a global report on young workers found they face a combination of challenges.

These challenges include inflation, skyrocketing housing costs and the rising cost of education in some countries (including the U.S.). Many also have experienced the negative impact of the 24/7 nature of social networking, as well as body image and low self-esteem issues.

Tips For Employers to Combat Ageism

Combating age discrimination should rank as a top priority for every organization. The key is to establish guidelines that are clearly understood at all levels, from executives and hiring managers to front-line workers.

Start With the Hiring Process

In some cases, even the language and placement of job openings can accidentally discriminate against workers. Companies should avoid language that makes any reference to age, such as “recent grads.” Job listings need placement where people of all ages will see them (such as the more well-known online job boards). Job applications should avoid seeking age-related information such as date of birth or year of graduation. Companies also should create a diverse panel of people to interview job candidates, including a mix of different ages.

Avoid Stereotyping

It’s important that those involved with hiring avoid stereotyping older workers as not worthy of hiring because they will retire soon (millions work well into their late 60s and beyond) or younger workers as willing to work for much lower salaries.

Include Ageism in DEI Efforts

Organizations should include ageism when creating diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training programs and company policies. Citing a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, the Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM) reported that while 64% of more than 1,300 CEOs across 77 countries had  DEI strategies in place, only 8% included ageism as part of those strategies. All employees can benefit from learning and development programs, career counseling and reverse-age mentoring.

Strive For Equity

Organizations should understand the differences between equity and equality. Treating everyone equally might come from a well-meaning place, but it can lead to unintended, unfavorable outcomes. For example, organizations don’t build “equal” restroom facilities for both disabled and able-bodied employees. Similarly, older workers might need extra training on some aspects of technology that younger workers have used since childhood. The idea of equity is to create fair outcomes for all employees, which sometimes requires giving workers from some backgrounds extra training or different accommodations.

Build a Strong Company Culture

At this point, every business, nonprofit or government agency has access to a wealth of information about the importance of diversity in the workforce. As part of that diversity, 21st-century organizations should focus on fostering a multigenerational culture that emphasizes ability rather than a person’s age. Just as people should reject stereotypes about race, ethnic background, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender and disabilities, so too should they reject fitting people of different ages into neatly defined boxes.

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