Combating Workplace Ageism

By Reio, Thomas G. Jr.,; Sanders-Reio, Joanne | Adult Learning, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Combating Workplace Ageism


Reio, Thomas G. Jr.,, Sanders-Reio, Joanne, Adult Learning


In an investigation of decision making on training, researchers gave business students in their 20s an exercise in which they were to make decisions about the imaginary employees of a fictitious company Employees were described as either "older" or "younger," or their personnel records included the photograph of either an older or younger person. One of these employees, a production staff worker, asked to attend a conference exploring new theories and research on production. When this employee was depicted as older, most of the students denied the request for training, but allowed the younger version of the same employee to attend. Another employee was a computer programmer whose skills had become obsolete and therefore had to be retrained or replaced. When this employee was characterized as older, the students opted for termination; when this employee was portrayed as younger, they chose retraining. In response to other scenarios, the students fired older workers who were having performance problems, but retrained younger workers exhibiting the same behaviors. They elected not to hire or advance job candidates who were older, but either employed or promoted younger workers with identical qualifications when the jobs called for creativity, innovation, quick judgments or physical exertion.

The researchers speculated that older, more mature personnel workers might not be as harsh as these young students. There is ample evidence, however, that the investigators were wrong: Studies show that judging people not by their behavior or personality but by their age (i.e., ageism) is in fact extensive. The purpose of this article is to alert readers to the problem of ageism, especially in the workplace. The article illustrates how ageism is inadvertently sustained by managers and even adult educators, and explores how we might begin to confront the problem.

Ageism Is Widespread

In a study conducted by the National Council of Aging, more than 50 percent of the employers surveyed believed that older workers cannot perform as well as younger workers. Likewise, in a University of Akron study, ageism was found to exist not only among executives and managers, but even among trainers. More than 30 percent of the management trainers surveyed said older workers are less trainable than younger workers. Seventy percent reported training is problematic for employees between the ages of 40 and 60. Interviews with these trainers revealed a variety of age-related stereotypes. Many saw older adults as set in their ways and unable or reluctant to learn. Some said older adults' memories have become crystallized, making them difficult to train, and some even indicated that senility is a problem among people over age 50. Lamentably, a number of these trainers also indicated that their companies had an unspoken policy of not hiring older applicants. Ageist attitudes such as these clearly can contribute to discriminatory practices, ultimately leading to the marginalization and trivialization of older workers.

The Ageist Myth

Overall, ageist stereotypes depict mature workers as less energetic, technically outdated, slow, less productive, rigid, unwilling to change, uninterested in learning, less innovative, technology- and computer-phobic, susceptible to physical ailments and less able to learn. As with the other "isms," such as racism and sexism, that marginalize sectors of the population, those discriminated against commonly internalize the majority's negative beliefs about themselves. In the case of ageism, this happens more often to those who are not well educated. This internalization can, in turn, lead to lower self-esteem, unhappiness and often depression, not to mention a lower sense of personal control, self-efficacy and even learned helplessness. Vulnerability to ageism is heightened among those who are already discriminated against because they are members of other low-status groups, such as racial minorities or single, divorced, or widowed women. …

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