Age discrimination in the workplace: Facts, examples and how to prevent it

Last updated:
May 13, 2022
May 13, 2022
min read
Brendan McConnell
age discrimination in the workplace
Table of contents

In 2022, it’s more important than ever for companies to be focused on diversity and inclusivity. Unfortunately, while they two are buzzwords in the working world, many believe they are synonymous. And, when it comes down to it, they don’t particularly understand what a truly diverse and inclusive company should look like.  

In addition to the major societal conversations taking place around race, gender, and sexuality, it’s no surprise that diversity in the workplace is a major indicator of success, innovation, and higher revenues. We applaud those who have spoken up against any form of prejudice, and it is, without a doubt, clear that the workplace needs to shift into a more accepting, prejudice-free environment. One area of workplace diversity that sometimes gets less air time, however, is age discrimination

In this article, we're going to look at what age discrimination is, the factors that lead to it, and explain how you can prevent it in your hiring and daily lives.

What is age discrimination?

Age discrimination is any prejudicial behavior that targets or discounts a person based on their age. Consider the term ‘discrimination’. We’d describe it as not offering the same opportunities to somebody based on specific labels assigned to the person. In this case, age discrimination may be put into place when a hiring manager won’t offer a role to a candidate - despite them having the necessary qualifications and experience - based on being too young or too old. 

This might appear during the hiring process, or it might be in-office discrimination in the form of missed promotions or throwaway comments about productivity. As with all discrimination, stereotypes about capabilities and motivations are often the driving factor behind age discrimination in the workplace.

By law, age discrimination is just as unacceptable as discounting a person based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, or religion. It's an equally protected demographic category. Despite that, however, ageism is among the most common forms of employment discrimination. And yet, one of the least talked about and battled. 

That said, it doesn’t mean age discrimination hasn’t been a topic in the media. Racial discrimination has hit the headlines far more, but over the years, age discrimination has made headline news. Plus, it has led to high-profile court cases targeting companies likes Google, PwC, Amazon, Facebook, and Goldman Sachs (to name a few).

The difference is, many companies see age discrimination as “the lesser” evil. Prejudice against sexuality, for example, can often be placed higher up in the hierarchy for how it makes others feel. The truth is, though, discrimination - of any kind - is wrong. There is no hierarchy, and we should aim to be as accepting as humanly possible.

Age discrimination can have a wide range of negative impacts on an organization, in addition to the legal implications. It can dramatically limit your talent pool, causing you to miss out on high-quality, very experienced and/or energetic and enthusiastic candidates. It can also create a homogenous workforce that lacks a diversity of experience and opinions.

All of these above factors, if not actively avoided, will ultimately hurt your company culture and your bottom line.

Before we jump into identifying and avoiding age discrimination, let's look at some convincing facts that illustrate why it's a problem.

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8 age discrimination facts you should know

If age discrimination - also known as ageism - isn't part of your company's diversity conversation, then now is a good time to bring it up to your colleagues and managers.

To do so, it's helpful to come armed with some real-world statistics about the issue.

Here are some age discrimination facts that help to frame the problem:

  1. In 2020, more than 20,000 age discrimination complaints were filled and logged by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 
  2. AARP says that almost 2 out of 3 workers who are 45 years old+ have seen or experienced age discrimination in their workplace. 
  3. In the same survey, 91% of those respondents said that age discrimination is common. 
  4. The number of people aged 65 or older who are still working is expected to rise to 29% by 2060.
  5. Job seekers between the ages of 29 and 31 receive 35% more callbacks than those aged 64 to 66.
  6. The World Health Organization reports that 6.3 million cases of depression worldwide have links to age discrimination and the psychological impact ageism has on an individual.
  7. Only 8% of CEOs report having age discrimination included in their diversity and inclusivity policies (even though 65% of those surveyed said they had such a policy).
  8. The Global Campaign to Combat Ageism released research showing that older people who were treated differently based on their maturity perform poorly on cognitive and physical tasks

These eight facts showcase four significant trends that all business owners and recruiters should be aware of heading into the future.

  • People are working later in life than ever before.  
  • It can be very tough for people above the age of 50 to find new work or even get a call back from a potential employer.
  • Most companies don't currently have a policy about age discrimination in place.
  • Age diversity is a leading contributor to more productive workplaces.

These 8 facts make it impossible to ignore the problem in front of you. Ageism is a real issue. Any company that is not currently accounting for age discrimination in their workplace needs to digest the statistics and make a change for the good of their organization and their employees. 

The reality is that many companies do not actively promote age diversity. Due to their lack of age diversity strategy, they’ll find they’re missing out on a rapidly growing talent pool of highly experienced and qualified individuals. Not to mention the benefits of multigenerational workforces.

On a serious note, companies that do not have active age discrimination policies in place are also at heightened legal and ethical risk. That leaves them open for potential complaints and lawsuits. 

So, if you work for one of those organizations or you own one of those companies, it’s time to make a change. There are steps you can take to identify and avoid age discrimination in the workplace. So, let’s find out how you can stamp out age discrimination within your company. 

Why does age discrimination happen?

Before you can identify and fix age discrimination, you need to understand why it happens in the first place. As mentioned, age discrimination is often caused by stereotypes or misconceptions about a specific age group.

Beyond that, there are a number of other systemic, cognitive, and inadvertent causes of age discrimination.

These might include:

  • Unconscious biases against certain age groups from your recruitment team, managers, or staff.
  • Overt reinforcement of attributes commonly associated with younger workers, and making that a core characteristic of your culture.
  • Overemphasis on recruiting for tech prowess rather than deep experience and industry knowledge.
  • Overly targeted recruitment campaigns or resource allocation to hire college students or recent graduates.
  • Not investing the same time and resources into targeting more experienced workers.
  • Using terms and phrases in your recruitment ads that appeal to a specific demographic (such as "digital natives" or "recent graduates").
  • Throwaway comments from employees throughout the organization that might dismiss or subjugate a fellow worker based on their age or perceived ability.
  • Budget constraints that drive companies to hire younger (and often cheaper) candidates.

These are just a few common factors that might lead to age discrimination. This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are likely other contributing factors and examples within individual organizations.

Now that we've identified why age discrimination happens, we’ll now look at examples of age discrimination. At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that age discrimination - or ageism - has a clear definition, but many don’t know or notice what it looks like. So, let's look at some concrete examples.

Examples of age discrimination 

As mentioned, age discrimination can be overt or subtle. It can wear many costumes, take many forms, and may go unidentified by a company if it's not top of mind.

Here are some common examples of age discrimination that you should be aware of.

Ageism in recruitment ads (caused by language choice)

How you write your recruitment ads and job requirements has a big influence on if a candidate feels welcome or qualified to apply. Don’t underestimate the power of your word choice.
Using words that appeal primarily to younger audiences is one of the most common forms of subtle age discrimination today. And, unless you’re looking out for it, it’s often digested subconsciously. But it has a very clear impact in terms of the types of candidates that apply. 

Here are some examples of words or phrases that target young workers:

  • "Go-getter": someone with lots of energy and ambition.
  • "Enthusiastic": someone who is highly engaged and willing to go the extra mile
  • "Forward-thinking": someone with new (young) ideas and modern perspectives
  • "High-potential": someone who hasn't proven themselves yet
  • "Digital native": another term for Millennials or Gen Y candidate

In addition to the above examples, it's also common to see references to education requirements that indicate a specific timeframe or age group. Referring to SATs or GPAs, for example, indicates a time period that might not apply to older workers. 

Ageism and assumptions about abilities

Assumptions and stereotypes about older workers are the driving force behind explicit and implicit biases in the workplace. Those who have an issue with age discrimination may assume that older workers are slow, unable to embrace new technologies, unwilling to hone their skills, or aren't forward-thinking enough.

These assumptions will often steer recruiters or hire managers away from older candidates, especially if they lack clear policies and training around age discrimination.

Policies, benefits, and perks that benefit a specific age group

The policies, benefits, and perks that a company invests in - and who they benefit - speak loudly about the company culture they're hoping to build. Building out benefits packages that primarily appeal to Millennials or Gen Y workers is a clear signal to older workers that they are not a priority.

To avoid this, companies should include a wide cross-section of their workforce in the conversation about what benefits and perks are most helpful. Strike a balance that appeals to all age groups, not just one.

Stray remarks in the workplace

Remarks made to and about older employees is one of the most significant - and costly - examples of age discrimination. This can lead to significant legal issues and negatively impact culture, morale, engagement, and retention. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most common examples of ageism in the workplace. 

Comments that reference someone's age, work style, perspective, speed, or technical abilities can all contribute to a negative culture of age discrimination. This is especially true and problematic if those comments are made in the lead-up to a termination.

Ageist word choice in rejection notices

Lastly, the way in which recruiters and hiring managers reject a candidate often includes purposeful or subconscious references to age and perceived ability. Like with recruitment ads, word choice is crucial when rejecting a candidate.

Describing the candidate as "tired," "not energetic," "overqualified," or "too experienced" are all subtle ways to say the same thing: the candidate was too old for the job. While you’re not saying the words directly, it’s not hard to read between the lines, and it can cause catastrophic consequences over time. 

Now that we've identified why age discrimination happens and how it manifests in an organization let's explore some ways to prevent it.

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How to prevent age discrimination in the workplace

Diversity and inclusivity in the workplace take a combination of education, policies, and collective effort.

The first step in preventing age discrimination is to accept that it likely exists in some capacity at your organization. Denial won’t help anyone.

The next step is to implement concrete actions that help to alleviate the problem.

Here are some of the most effective ways to prevent age discrimination in your workplace.

Educate about bias.

All recruiters and hiring managers at your organization should undergo training on explicit and implicit biases. This training should be specifically aimed at identifying and dispelling myths about older workers.

Bias training is a powerful tool for recruiters that will help them identify when they are most likely to decide based on their assumptions and how to avoid doing so. This training can be incorporated with your wider diversity hiring training and is applicable to all demographics.

Create the right policies.

The fight against age discrimination needs to start from the top. Leaders must take a stand to call out and dispel ageism across the company for any policy to work. Without the support of the senior team, there will be no example for employees to follow. 

Once top-down leadership has been established, the next step is to review your discrimination policy. Look at what characteristics and demographics are protected and emphasized in this document.

If age isn't included or given equal emphasis compared to others, then that’s a good place to start. Re-write your discrimination policy to ensure that age is given equal weight.

Make sure that you communicate this new policy clearly to everyone within your organization. Provide specialist training to ensure that employees have the tools they need to identify, understand, and avoid age discrimination cases.

Include age in your diverse hiring strategy.

Next, recruiters should take a direct stand against age discrimination in their hiring practices. If your company has a diverse hiring strategy in place already, include age as a distinct demographic.

This isn't to say that you should swing the pendulum the other way and only target older candidates. Instead, it means that you should be aware of and sensitive to how your hiring strategy might appeal to one group of people while alienating another. This will help you create hiring campaigns that appeal to as wide a range of people as possible.

Watch how you advertise.

As mentioned earlier, the words you use in your recruitment ads and job requirements can significantly impact the types of people who apply.

Pay close attention to the words you use when advertising a role, and avoid terms that target a specific audience.

Showcase a multigenerational workforce.

Employee branding is a powerful tool for showcasing your company culture and the type of workforce you value. When creating employer branding content, make sure that you show workers of all ages.

Videos, images, and testimonials that show a multigenerational workforce are effective ways to show potential candidates that they're welcome, regardless of how many years of experience they may or may not have.

It's been proven time and time again that diverse workforces are successful ones. 

Diversity comes in many different forms and does not just apply to race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. Age discrimination is alive and festering in many industries and organizations across the world. 

It falls to you as a recruiter, leader, or hiring manager to identify that reality and take the necessary steps to prevent it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is age discrimination? 

A: Age discrimination, otherwise known as ageism, is when you hold prejudice against someone and don’t offer them the same opportunities due to their age. 

Q: Why does age discrimination happen? 

A: There is a wide range of contributing factors as to why ageism exists. In the workplace, it’s often down to unconscious bias, targeted recruitment campaigns and language choice, and throwaway comments from members of the team. 

Q: Why is age discrimination a bad thing?

A: Age discrimination can have a lot of negative consequences. Firstly, it dramatically limits the number of people inside your talent pool and alienates potential employees that could be an excellent asset to your company. It could also be a cause for lawsuits. And, amongst other issues, it causes serious psychological impact - even if that’s on a subconscious level. 

Q: How can I avoid age discrimination in my workplace? 

A: Educating your team members is a great place to start. Deliver specific training about discrimination as a whole, and really dive deep into ageism. You should also create effective policies that battle against ageism, and the leadership team should adhere to them as role models.

These strategies, on top of being mindful about language use in recruitment ads and feedback, as well as being able to identify and combat any discriminatory comments, will limit ageism in your company. 

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