Ageism in the workplace is far more common than we realize. So why does it still exist and how do we mitigate it? The fact is, in many areas of our lives, we tend to emphasize differences between generations, highlighting their seemingly characteristic traits. Consciously or not, we often make assumptions about people – be it their cultural preferences, political views, or even their relationship with technology – based purely on their age. Naturally, the worldview of one generation likely differs from another given they were raised in distinct eras with unique conditions, values, and behaviors. And certainly, age influences personality: we generally think and act differently in our seventies compared to when we were 25. However, does this rather reductionist way of deciding who people are based on their age truly have value?

colloquio tra una giovane donna e una donna più matura

For HR professionals, understanding generational differences is crucial, especially during hiring, and while generational concepts might be useful for buyer profiling or social media campaigns, categorizing candidates or employees by generation can introduce a bias: it overlooks the “human” in Human Resources, i.e. the unique qualities of each individual. This article aims to shed light on and offer potential strategies to help reduce age discrimination in the workplace.

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Some Common Biases That Are Too Often Accepted

Certain biases, particularly conscious ones, are more noticeable, perhaps because they’re more easily recognized. An example is confirmation bias: the inclination to favor those sharing one’s views and avoid those causing discomfort. Despite its acknowledgment, this bias persists.

Another related bias is group bias. We might overvalue our own group’s abilities, attributing our success to merit and dismissing others’ successes as mere luck. This bias, oddly accepted, can cause misunderstandings within companies.

Ageism is another bias. It encompasses behaviors that stereotype people by age, often accepting broad generalizations without verifying their accuracy. Since age is objective, these stereotypes are somewhat socially “accepted.” Ageism usually appears in three forms:

Institutional ageism, stemming from actions and policies of institutions, like schools.

Interpersonal ageism, found in social interactions.

Internalized ageism, where individuals adopt and apply these beliefs to themselves.

Though age is an undeniable biological fact, we can refrain from solely judging people by it. Especially for leaders aspiring to be role models, it’s vital to be aware of ageist language and biases. To truly understand the complexities of human behavior, we must first address our own stereotyping.

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Workplace Ageism Against the Old

Bias against older individuals manifests in various ways: overlooking them for promotions or training, despite their years of experience. Older employees are sometimes stereotyped as being “set in their ways”, unwilling to adapt to new systems and technologies, as well as being more prone to health issues, thus leading to hesitations in hiring or retaining them. Such biases underutilize a crucial workforce segment with invaluable experience: seasoned talent has a perspective that their younger counterparts are yet to acquire.

Workplace Ageism Against the Young

We tend to assume that the term “ageism” refers exclusively to discrimination against older people, but prejudice against younger employees is also a pressing concern in today’s workplace. Often referred to as “reverse ageism” younger cohorts face their own unique set of challenges, most typically being perceived as lacking experience or maturity, leadin