The Washington Post Magazine recently ran an interesting story about the prevalence of ageism in the workplace. As the baby boomer generation ages, the problem of age discrimination is going to be more and more common. Unfortunately, age discrimination remains one of the more socially acceptable forms of discrimination in our society. Todd Nelson, a psychology professor quoted in the article, pointed to greeting cards as indicative of this social acceptability of ageism. If you shop for birthday cards, you’ll see many that talk about how getting older is something to be ashamed of or that people would want to hide. You don’t see such attitudes publicly expressed about race, sex, or religion. A card that said “’ha ha, too bad you’re Jewish’ …wouldn’t go over so well,” Nelson noted.
Older workers face deeply ingrained pernicious stereotypes about their ability as workers. Many employers hold stereotypical views that older workers are unable to learn new technologies (“you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”), unable to take direction from younger supervisors, and can’t get invested in the job because they are just thinking about retirement. Many employers also assume that older workers will be prone to filing workers compensation claims due to on-the-job injuries.
If you are an older worker, you probably already know that you need to guard against ageism. And if you don’t know that you need to do that, consider yourself warned. There are laws against age discrimination but you need to stay alert to the signs of discrimination in order to detect it. For example, if your employer is laying you off, try to find out the ages of the other people being laid off to see if, perhaps not so coincidentally, the younger workers are being spared the axe. In some instances where employers offer you a severance package, the Older Workers Benefits Protection Act requires the employer to tell you the ages of the people who were laid off and not laid off so that you can see whether the employer targeted older workers.