Let’s talk about ageism

Dr Tatiana Rowson, Henley Business School

I am just returning from a conference on ageing at work where we discussed work and retirement issues. Among many areas of interest, ageism had not received a lot of attention. As the workforce gets older and more diverse, we cannot shy away from discussing ageism. 

Ageism can be understood as discrimination against someone on the grounds of age, generally old age. In practice, ageism is far more complicated than the definition leads us to believe. Here is why:

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Age is more than a number

It is subjective and open to interpretation depending on other characteristics, such as appearance, social context, status, gender and health. The experience of ageing is highly individualised, and ageism is likely to be based on stereotyped perceptions of ageing rather than individual circumstances.

These stereotypes associated with older workers, such as ‘older workers have lower levels of motivation’ or ‘older workers are resistant to change’ persist despite the lack of evidence. This means that older adults may be denied opportunities at work due to the perceptions of their managers and supervisors. 

Appearance

Appearance is another strong influencer on ageism; theorists argue that older adults are perceived as warm but not competent. Hence, they are not necessarily taken seriously and at times are infantilised. At work, an aged appearance seems to affect women more than men. There is evidence that some women feel under pressure to actively keep a youthful look to avoid being invisible to career opportunities and progression. Age interacts with other characteristics creating areas of intersectionality, just like age and gender. These intersectionalities generates more inequalities between different groups of people irrespectively of their true potential.

Negative attitudes towards age are developed early in life, in our childhood and adolescence. The media and social media perpetuate negative images of ageing. The lack of exposure to positive images of ageing crystalises these negative attitudes that inform our working practices and relationships. In addition to the effects of ageism on the well-being of older workers, negative attitudes toward age can have a detrimental impact on our own experience of ageing. 

What research shows us

Research shows that internalised ageism can affect the decisions and attitudes of older adults. Internalised ageism can be unconscious, yet it still affects decisions and behaviours. This might lead an employee to believe they are too old to receive training, to bother monitoring their health or even asking for adjustments at work to be made. Internalised ageism can wear out individuals’ resilience to cope with changes in their body, health or even external, contextual changes.

Monitoring a positive age-diverse climate ensures a better relationship between workers, as any diversity initiative, especially as we now have a greater range of ages represented in our workforce. A positive attitude towards ageing also helps organisations to retain their older workers, invest in their development, well-being and belongingness. If that is not compelling enough, by fostering an age-diverse workplace, we might reverse some of our internalised ageism, increasing our own resilience to age.  

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