Generations at Work and Ageism: The Acceptable Discrimination

By Janie Warner

For the past 20 years, organizations have been bombarded with information on how to deal with the number of generations in the workplace. Companies have attended seminars and workshops on tailoring the workplace to meet the needs of the up and coming generations. We’ve learned how to recruit them, how to train them and how to engage them so they want to stay in the workforce. While this has been met with much enthusiasm, the “training” has mostly been geared toward the younger generation. All this focus on the “under 40” crowd has had an unintended consequence for the work force – rising age discrimination claims.

The National Council on Aging (www.ncoa.org) conducted a study in 2014 that found:

  • More than 40% of Americans over the age of 55 will be employed by 2019
  • They will make up more than one-fourth of the U.S. workforce
  • This is up from 22% in 2014

Additionally, according to the EEOC, the amount of age discrimination complaints filed has increased dramatically in recent years.

  • Between 1997 and 2007, about 18,000 annual complaints were filed
  • Since 2008, between 20,000 and 25,000 filings have been filed annually, with the number increasing every year

To what can we attribute this rise? What if it is directly tied to programs designed to engage the younger workforce?

First, look at the two main reasons for the age discrimination claims:

  • General harassment: Such as a general dismissive attitude toward workers who may not be, or are perceived to not be, as technologically savvy as the younger workers
  • Age-related name calling: By far the largest number of claims are due to this. Some of the common offenders including “old man/woman”, “grandma/grandpa”, “old timer”, “dinosaur” and even “over the hill”, just to name a few

Quite often, employers do not get too concerned when they hear these types of names, presuming it is all in “good fun.” As with any type of harassment, however, the offense determination is made by the receiver. And when employers fail to act in defense of the victim of such name-calling, claims are filed and must be dealt with – costing both time and money.

Why would employees feel free to attribute age sensitive titles to older adults in the workforce? Most likely because employers have made such a point of catering to the younger worker but have failed to attribute the same value to the older worker.

We see this played out in many of the programs put in place to encourage Generations X, Y and Z to participate in the workforce. Employers have made a point of requiring older workers to respect the younger generations by telling them, “They are the future!” Yet, we fail to point out to the younger generations that those who came before – and have forged the way and created the company’s success up to this point – are the foundation upon which they can build their careers.

We make assumptions about older workers – they are “tired,” they don’t want to learn new things, their children are grown so they aren’t so concerned about family time, and even presuming that they don’t like technology or change. These are all sweeping generalizations that would not be tolerated toward any other protected group, yet we freely foster these ideas within our workforce.

Even our benefit programs tend to be geared toward the “under 40” crowd. We still see “maternity leave” policies which are, on their face, discriminatory to older workers and those who cannot bear children (Tip: change it to a “leave” policy and make it available to all employees – not just women of child-bearing ability). When the company remains open on holidays, often the older workers get assigned those shifts, presuming that younger workers with children still at home have more of a “need” to be off on those days.

How can we move past this and become a more inclusive workplace for all generations? Here are a few ideas:

  • Hire older workers – Their diverse experiences make them excellent sources for new ideas.
  • Create multi-directional mentor programs – Set the expectation that everyone can learn something from everyone.
  • Do NOT stop setting expectations for employees as they age – Most employees still enjoy learning new things at every age of their career.
  • Don’t dwell on differences – Move beyond labels and generalizations for all generations.
  • Build collaborative relationships – Age, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation should not be allowed to interfere with the collaboration needed to achieve the MISSION of the organization.
  • Know your employees – Who they are is more important than what generation they are. Don’t let stereotypes get in the way of treating them as individuals.
  • Compensate fairly – Develop compensation and incentive plans around the goals and objectives of the employees at whatever stage of life they are in.
  • Make inclusion of ALL generations part of your stated corporate values – Remind all employees that everyone matters and everyone is important.

The reality is, we have always had different generations in the workplace! This is NOT a new concept in the 21st century. Just because someone decided to study it, we’ve unintentionally created a divide between groups of employees that was not so emphasized 50, or even 20, years ago.

Most likely, 50 years ago employers expected employees to work together to achieve the objectives and didn’t worry so much about differences based on age.

If employers want employees to respect each other, the company culture needs to be INCLUSIVE for all ages. Older workers are not going away. Let’s value them and teach the generations to come to value them as well. After all, DIVERSITY isn’t a program – it’s a CULTURE – and it starts at the top of the organization.

Janie Warner
Senior Consultant
Regions Insurance, Inc.
Janie.Warner@Regions.com