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Age discrimination is one of the most unfair labor market paradoxes: people have worked hard for decades and are punished for it.
And the problem is only getting worse: According to AARP’s most recent survey, nearly 80% of older workers say they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. That was the highest share since the group started asking the question in 2003.
Even as the economy recovers from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, older workers are struggling to be rehired. The percentage of job seekers over 55 who were ‘long-term unemployed’, meaning they had been looking for a job for 27 weeks or more, was over 36% in February, compared to about 23% among those aged 16 to 54 . (About a quarter of the workforce is over 55.)
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“I get these heartbreaking emails from people who are incredibly qualified, who send hundreds and hundreds of emails and don’t even get a response,” said Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. “They are so demoralized.”
It is not surprising that the discrimination has psychological consequences. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 6.3 million cases of depression are attributed to ageism worldwide.
Anyone who thinks they’re paying a price for their age should know they’re not alone, experts say. Here are some strategies to combat the problem.
Start by realizing what is internalized
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You may have your own frustration and sadness about getting older; understandably, Applewhite said, “We live in a culture that inundates us with negative messages about aging.” And as a result, she said, “older people tend to be the most age-appropriate of all.”
Yet these perceptions can have a powerful impact.
Research shows that older people exposed to subliminal negative age stereotypes are more likely to perform poorly on cognitive and physical tasks, said Dr. Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez, manager of the World Health Organization’s Global Campaign to Combat Age Discrimination.
On the other hand, de la Fuente-Núñez said, studies show that individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging experienced better functional health and longer life.
“Age stereotypes that we internalize can generate expectations that act as self-fulfilling prophecies,” de la Fuente-Núñez said.
It’s not hard to imagine how this cold dynamic hurts you professionally. For example, if you think that older people are less skilled with technology, as you get older, you can assume that you can’t learn and master certain digital skills and therefore don’t even try.
To dispel some of this pessimism and its implications, Applewhite recommends being skeptical of generalizations and getting more knowledge of the facts.
“The more we know about aging, the less anxious we become,” she said. “Our concerns are far out of proportion to reality.” (She said older people are often surprised to learn that only 2.5% of Americans over age 65 live in nursing homes.)
And while some deterioration in memory and processing speed is common as we age, comprehension, reading and vocabulary are some of our skills that remain stable — or even get better over time, research shows.
“We talk about aging like it’s a complete loss, but there are gains,” Applewhite said. “Find me an elder who really wants to go back to his youth.”
Focus on how you are still growing
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Alison Chasteen, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies prejudice, found in her research that some older adults fared better than others during the pandemic.
What was their secret? They focused on areas where they could still grow.
“We’re referring to the sense that one is on a trajectory of improvement,” Chasteen said.
Fortunately, there are more ways than ever for older workers to advance, says John Tarnoff, a career transition coach.
He pointed to the seemingly endless amount of free content on YouTube, as well as the classes available on platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, Skillshare, and GetSetUp.io, a learning community aimed at the over-50s.
Find me an elder who wants to go back to his youth.
Another helpful strategy, he said, could be for people to contact directly the technology or software vendor they want to learn more about. “The company can probably provide information and training to get you started,” Tarnoff said.
Many cities also offer job placement services to seniors at little to no cost, including job placement and resumption assistance.
At the same time, some older workers worry too much about a specific skill they’re missing, such as a skill in Salesforce, and lose track of everything they’ve learned over the course of their careers, Tarnoff said. You don’t learn that wisdom in a video.
“There’s a lot we bring to the table that isn’t on the page,” he said. “If you don’t know the strategic value and experience you bring to market through decades on the job, you’re selling yourself short.”
Be prepared for the bias
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Unfortunately, because age discrimination is so common, experts say older workers need to be prepared to handle incidents.
If you’re in front of a hiring manager and suspect they’re concerned about your age, Applewhite recommends responding right away. “Say, ‘I know how to work with this software’ or, ‘I’m used to working with a younger team, and I don’t care if my boss is 12.'”
Many older workers are asked by hiring managers if they are “overqualified” for a position, Tarnoff said.
Asking that question can be a concern that you will take a better job once you get one. To allay that fear in an interview, Tarnoff also suggests being direct by saying something like, “This isn’t a stepping stone for me. At this point in my life, this is what I want to do.”
Of course, the discrimination goes way beyond the hiring process. If you’re experiencing the problem at work, don’t ignore it, experts say.
There’s a lot we bring to the table that isn’t on the page.
career transition coach
But the way you approach the problem is crucial.
Chasteen, the professor who studies prejudice at the University of Toronto, has found in recent research that older people who respond to ageism in an illicit way are more likely to get a positive response than, say, those who are heated. .
As an example, she described a situation in which an older person is offered help with a task that they can no longer do on their own. Such acts may be considered benevolent age discrimination.
“We found that the moderate approach to saying, ‘Thank you, but I can handle it on my own,’ resulted in fewer negative reactions to the older person,” Chasteen said.
“Such a response acknowledges that there was probably no malicious intent on the part of the person offering the unwanted help,” she added. “But it also provides an opportunity for the older person to assert their competence in the situation.”
Consider reporting it
It’s important that people keep a record of repeated incidents of age discrimination they experience and then report them, said Jeff Vardaro, a civil rights attorney in Columbus, Ohio.
“It won’t fix itself,” Vardaro said. “Employees need to take these things into their own hands.” You probably don’t want to dwell too long on your complaints, he added, as some states require age discrimination issues to be reported within a specified time.
Your notes about your experience should be as detailed as possible, Vardaro said. For example, instead of writing that your boss said something mean about your age, say that he asked you on 24 separate occasions when you planned to retire. “That stuff can be really helpful if you’re going to report it,” he said.
Your company’s human resources department should be your first stop, but don’t be surprised if that conversation goes nowhere, he said. Unfortunately, the people in the HR department can be part of the age culture.
As long as we pretend to be younger than we are, we contribute to the discrimination.
“Sometimes human resources are involved because they have an incentive to push older workers out and bring in younger, cheaper workers,” Vardaro said. And at the end of the day, he added, “It’s their job to protect the company, not the employees.”
If you believe that your complaints are not being taken seriously internally, file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In many states, filing a federal complaint automatically leads to a state complaint, Vardaro said. “But it really differs from state to state,” he added. “People should consult a lawyer before filing charges.”
It’s illegal for your boss to punish you for contacting the EEOC, Vardaro said, “but the reality is, retaliation is still happening.”
“I always recommend that when an employee makes an internal complaint or charges, they remain alert to any changes in the way they are treated,” he added. “We often find it easier to hold employers accountable for retaliation than for the original discrimination.”
Applewhite said one of the most powerful ways for older people to resist ageism is to resist hiding who they are.
“If you feel like you’re being discriminated against, I’m really, really sorry,” she said. “If you have to dye your hair, or screw up your resume, don’t judge. Do what you have to do.”
But, she said, “as long as we pretend to be younger than we are, we contribute to the discrimination that necessitates that behavior.”
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations, and the Silver Century Foundation.
This post How can older workers resist the reality of ageism? was original published at “https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/20/how-older-workers-can-push-back-against-the-reality-of-ageism-.html”