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How Does Ageism Affect the Workplace?

by Billie Nordmeyer

The oldest of the 76 million baby boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- have joined the ranks of seniors – those who are 65 years of age or older. Consequently, the concerns of older Americans are moving higher on the corporate agenda in terms of the products that companies manufacture, the services that businesses offer and the ways that products are marketed. What remains unclear is if ageism in the workplace, or the stereotyping and discrimination against senior employees, will lessen or increase.

Defining Ageism

In “Fighting Ageism,” an article published by The American Psychological Association, ageism is described as a prejudice against older people as reflected in stereotypes and attitudes. For example, an employer might discriminate against employees over 65 in terms of promotions, salary increases and new job opportunities. Such discrimination might be the result of a perception of seniors as dependent and helpless individuals who are demanding and unproductive.

Effects of Ageism in the Workplace

According to the U. S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for workers age 65 and older was 6.2 percent in September 2012. This statistic reflects the fact that when older workers become unemployed they remain jobless for an average of 35 weeks versus those ages 25 to 54 who remain unemployed for about 30 weeks. In addition, the U. S. Government Accountability Office report, “Unemployed Older Workers May Face Long-Term Joblessness and Reduced Retirement Security,” states that older workers earn approximately 15 percent less when they return to work versus workers in the 25 to 54 age group who earn on average 5 percent less than their former salary.

Explaining Ageism in the Workplace

The U. S. Government Accountability Office reports that companies overtly favor young workers rather than seniors in part because young workers often have less on-the-job experience and, as a result, earn less than older workers. According to the report, employers also favor younger workers because of the disparity between health care costs for seniors and younger employees and because employers assume that older employees may not be comfortable working for a younger boss. The GAO states that other concerns regarding older employees include the lack of needed technical skills and the probability that they will remain on staff for relatively a short time.

Age Discrimination Legislation

The intent of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act is to protect employees and job applicants age 40 and older from discrimination based on age. In 2012, however, 45 years after the ADEA was passed, the American Association of Retired Persons surveyed seniors regarding age discrimination. More than one-third of survey respondents stated they or someone they know has experienced age discrimination in the workplace. In addition, although the ADEA was passed in 1967, between 1997 and 2012, the number of age discrimination charges filed under the ADEA, Title VII, Americans with Disabilities Act or the Equal Pay Act, increased in eight of the 16 years, with the highest number of charges filed in 2011. Perhaps for these and other reasons, in 2012, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act was introduced in Congress to amend the ADEA and clarify the standards for anti-discrimination claims.

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