America has made tremendous strides over the past 50 years towards workplace equality. It’s not yet perfect, but women and minorities now have most of the same opportunities for employment and advance as their white male peers.
But there’s one place where employment discrimination runs rampant. Older workers, including some in their 40’s are routinely and almost blatantly turned away from jobs purely because of their age. While age discrimination is illegal, two-thirds of older job seekers say they’ve experienced it, according to ageism expert Ashton Applewhite writing in The New York Times.
Ageism is based on a variety of perceptions about older workers that simply don’t hold up to scrutiny, according to Applewhite. Veteran workers, he says, are proven to be reliable, engaged, able to learn new skills, less likely to be hurt on the job, and well equipped to handle stress.
By refusing to hire experienced people, Applewhite says, companies are missing out on yet another aspect of the power of diversity. The experience, wisdom and maturity provided by older workers can both turbocharge and temper the new thinking and raw ambition of younger team members. Too many younger people think older workers won’t mesh with their organizations; that their interests, tastes and worldview will clash with those of younger teammates.
Applewhite says that’s not necessarily true, and blames our “age segregated” society for fostering ignorance between the generations. He notes that Americans are statistically more likely to have a friend of a different race than one who is ten years younger or older than themselves.
Defeating ageism will be a daunting task, Applewhite admits. The battle must be fought on two levels. First, each of us has to let go of our biases about people older (and younger) than ourselves. Second, a movement similar to the women’s movement will need to arise to make the case that age discrimination isn’t a series of individual incidents but a social problem that must be remedied.
Until that new golden age, it’s important for older workers to be mindful of certain realities. If you get downsized out of a job in your mid-50’s you could face a long and difficult job search that may result in you earning less money. Be prepared. Look for ways to increase your value and contribution at your current job. Step up. Take on new responsibilities. Master new tasks. Hustle like you are 23 years old.
Consider increasing your emergency fund to one-year or more of living expenses. Think about picking up a new monetizable skill in your spare time — computer coding, web design, cooking – that could lead to a new career if you lose your current job.
If you’re in your 20’s or 30’s, factor the ageism reality into your retirement plan. You may expect to work until 65 or 70, but should perhaps be ready to retire in your late 50’s if necessary, perhaps working a part-time job until it makes sense to start on Social Security.
Ageism is a nasty thing that cheats both organizations and individuals out of the chance to be their best. I’m committing to doing my part to fight it every day. I hope you’ll do the same.