Ageism in the workplace goes both ways: Young people (or those who look young) are often dismissed as inexperienced and unreliable, while older people are seen as incapable of adapting to new methods and resistant to technology. Both ends of the age spectrum are not hired for positions, even though they’re qualified, and similarly miss out on promotions.
Women are affected more than men. “Gendered ageism is real,” notes entrepreneur and executive coach Bonnie Marcus. "We need to include more unconscious biased training around gender-bias, and gender ageism so that people realize how powerful some of these stereotypes are that hold women back."
What is ageism at work?
Ageism can show up in the workplace in many forms, from jokes by colleagues to career-harming actions. It’s any stereotyping or prejudice against people, based solely on their age.
According to AARP, 35 percent of the workforce will be over 50 by 2022, yet age discrimination remains common, with women and Black employees affected the most. Because only 3 percent of workers who have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace have made a formal complaint of any kind, ageism may be much more common than reported.
In a 2019 trend brief by Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to accelerate and advance women into leadership, Sophia Ahn and Amelia Costigan write that ageism hinders women’s careers at every phase—and it starts right at the hiring process. Older women experience more employment rejections than older men when job hunting, and younger women (under age 45) are almost twice as likely to be called back for another interview than older women.
Read more: 6 Times You Should Talk to Human Resources
If you’re an older person in the workplace, watch for signs of ageism, business coach Melanie L. Denny, tells InHerSight. She says managers may do small things like not assign tech-heavy projects to you because they perceive you as slow to catch on to technology. You may receive a negative performance evaluation deeming you as inflexible. Listen for passive aggressive comments like “we needed new blood” after being passed up for a promotion you’re well qualified for in favor of a younger employee.
“They may even go as far as firing you to keep younger workers who earn less for performing the same job, or letting you go because your retirement package is coming up and it would cost less to let you go ahead of time,” Denny adds.
Those performance reviews that abruptly switch to poor are a huge red flag, according to career counselor Robin Ryan, who says “when you suddenly get ones instead of fours on your performance reviews, you are in serious trouble.” In this case, you may need to start documenting less formal assessments and feedback, including that from coworkers and clients, as proof of your actual performance.
Read more: 6 Examples of Ageism Hiding in Plain Sight
How is ageism different from age discrimination?
Career change coach Lisa Lewis Miller says the difference between the two is that age discrimination is typically a single isolated act based in bias, while ageism is the set of underlying stereotypes that drive discriminatory behaviors.
Ageism usually affects older employees more severely than younger ones, Miller explains. “If a hiring manager assumes you are older, they may assume you reflect stereotypes about your generation (like being afraid of technology, slow to adapt, or stuck in your ways), or may assume your years of experience make you too expensive and not interested in a certain salary position.”
However, she notes that ageism biases seriously affect Millennial and Gen Z workers, too. “The assumptions about you may be that you’ll act entitled, you are unwilling to work hard, you prioritize a leisurely lifestyle over ‘putting in the time,’ you need to have your hand held on every assignment, or that you aren’t mature enough or willing to assimilate to typical office standards of professionalism.”
When does ageism legally become age discrimination?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes it clearly: “Age discrimination involves treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age.” Age discrimination against people over 40 is illegal under The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). All aspects of employment are covered, from hiring and firing, to pay, promotions, and training.
Age discrimination can start with the job ad, according to the law firm of Lawless, Lawless & McGrath. An example of an age discrimination violation is “including age preferences, specifications, or limitations in job advertisements or notices unless required for the specific position, such as hiring an actor to play a specific age range.”
It can start before the job ad, too.
A study of U.S.-based LinkedIn users published this year finds that “older job seekers on LinkedIn receive fewer job offers than younger ones,” writes Douglas Heingartner at Psych News Daily. “But using a profile photo with a younger appearance reduces this effect.”
No other factor, including skills, contacts, or recommendations made a significant difference. Simply put, “despite comparable—or in some respects better—online profiles, older job seekers did not receive comparable employment opportunities,” the study authors write. “A younger-looking face creates impressions of higher physical and mental fitness. Our results suggest that these impressions may indeed be a powerful driver of favorable employment outcomes.”
These findings demonstrate again the power of subconscious biases. Recruiters and hiring managers who are not self-aware and who don’t audit and mitigate their biases run the risk of inhibiting diversity and inclusivity in the workplace.
That lack of self-awareness can negatively affect the entire recruitment process, well before a resume is received. According to University of Washington Human Resources, “false narratives about a candidate are not just formed in the first few seconds of reviewing an application, but can be formed before the position is ever posted, and those narratives can influence the overall equity of the hiring process.”
About our sources
Melanie Denny is a career empowerment coach, award-winning resume writer, nationally certified LinkedIn strategist, and career speaker. President of Resume-Evolution, she’s helped thousands of corporate professionals, from entry-level to executive across various industries, level up in their careers.
Lisa Lewis Miller is a career change coach who helps unfulfilled individuals find careers that light them up. She's helped more than 500 people make transitions, and is the host of The Career Clarity Show on Apple Podcasts.