What Is Ageism or Age Discrimination?

Workplace ageism continues to be a problem in the U.S. since stereotypes against older workers are usually rooted in their perceived value. This bias can include offhand comments in the office that put older workers down to deny opportunities, promotions, and even employment.

“We did a survey fairly recently of older workers and it’s a problem. Seventy-eight percent said that they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace,” said Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resilience programming for AARP, to RetireGuide.

“It’s often even worse for job applicants,” continued Weinstock. “After you submit a resume, you have to fill out an application that asks questions about your birth date or your graduation date, things like that that are directly related to age and can knock someone out if the employer decides they’re not interested in someone of a certain age.”

As ageism continues to occur, older workforce members have a more challenging time getting a leg up in their careers or truly having a chance to thrive. And this problem is about to get much more significant due to a rapidly aging nation.

According to the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging, Americans who are 55 or older will make up nearly a quarter of the country’s workforce by 2026.

Managing a thriving economy will be incredibly difficult if 25 percent of that workforce is at risk of discrimination.

Age of Civilian US Labor Force (1967)

Age of Civilian US Labor Force (2017)

Examples of Age Discrimination

Ageism and age discrimination can take many different forms. You might think that “discrimination” only includes actively treating an employee worse or even firing them solely due to their age, but it can often be much more subtle.

A significant form of ageism includes the hiring process itself. Many job applications across industries often favor younger applicants, which could demotivate older workers from even applying.

“They say things like ‘digital native,’ or they’ll even just say ‘young.’ There’s a lot of words used that older workers may see as code for ‘they don’t want me because I’m too old,’” Weinstock said. “Also energetic, highly enthusiastic words can seem to convey a certain ‘we want young people.’”

According to Forbes, older professionals who apply for a job in-person where employers can see their age are less likely to be hired than someone applying online.

The qualifications can be the same. But if an employer can see that you are above a certain age, they are statistically less likely to end up hiring you.

Ageism can also impact older professionals who have held the same position since they were young.

Examples of Age Discrimination in the Workplace
  • Younger, less qualified employees receive bigger projects or opportunities
  • Older, more qualified applicants get passed over for promotions without clear reasoning
  • Older employees are unevenly laid-off
  • Senior employees are excluded from out-of-work activities or social events
  • Older employees are assumed not to understand technology

Age discrimination can even include if you are often the center of offhand age-related jokes or comments from your boss and coworkers. This creates a divide in offices and can make older employees feel like outsiders.

Employers also may tend to favor hiring and promoting younger employees because they will be “cheaper” or willing to work for less money.

But this assumption is just another example of discrimination, with young workers getting the benefit of the doubt that they will not command a high salary while older workers’ financial needs are just assumed.

“An employer doesn’t know the financial situation of a prospective employee,” Weinstock said. “How do they know what they’re willing to take as a salary? Maybe this person had a previous job and retired and had some retirement funds and can use that money. They want to take a step back and want to take this job. Maybe they see it as an opportunity to re-career.”

Any actions taken by an employer that deny opportunities to an older employee based solely on their age can be a form of ageism.

Consequences of Age Discrimination

Age discrimination’s prevalence in the workforce has led to severe consequences that span economic impact to a toll on productivity and mental health.

According to AARP, ageism and bias against older members of the workforce cost the U.S. economy $850 billion in GDP in 2018. With the average age of employees continuously getting older, that number could climb to $3.9 trillion by 2050.

US GDP Loss vs. GDP of Other Countries (Trillions)

“All of our research shows that none of those [stereotypes] are true,” Weinstock said. “Older workers especially bring really important soft skills to the workplace, and employers tell us that’s the most important thing. They can train them on the hard skills.”

Developed soft skills like empathy, listening, collaboration and teamwork are all things that, according to Weinstock, older workers bring to the workplace.

But while older workers can have clear and significant benefits to a workplace, ageism and age discrimination can potentially force them out of a place of employment entirely.

Benefits Older Workers Bring to a Workplace
  • Experience
  • Work Ethic
  • Honed Skills
  • High Productivity
  • Soft Skills

Ageism and its consequences go far beyond economic impact — there are also legal implications. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects workers age 40 or older from experiencing discrimination based on their age.

The act applies to young and older professionals and prohibits discriminated at your job under circumstances surrounding assignments, harassment, wrongful firings and layoffs.

Where Does the ADEA Act Outlaw Discrimination?
  • Hiring Process
  • Payment/Salary
  • Training
  • Promotions and Job Assignments
  • Layoffs
  • Firings

Beyond the legal and financial implications of ageism in the workplace, there is also an emotional toll. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, dealing with adverse job characteristics can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.

This has shown to be especially true for older members of the workforce, especially since seniors and people nearing that age often struggle with mental health even outside of and unrelated to their work.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, older adults are already at a significant risk of developing mental health problems due to large life changes like job change. If ageism is also included, then the mental health of older Americans is even more at jeopardy.

Women and Ageism

Another added consequence of ageism is that it can seriously impact older women who are part of the workforce. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, ageism is an especially tough issue for women since it is compounded by sexism.

Percentage of Women in the Workforce

According to Forbes, women still make just 81 cents for every dollar men make while also dealing with a variety of additional biases, expectations and roadblocks in their careers.

The article also states that women may experience ageism at an even younger age than men. Once women are old enough to be mothers or have a family, employers may unfairly question their commitment or amount of focus they have given to their job.

This bias could be a result of outdated traditional gender roles that span back decades.

As stated above, older Americans already face significant resistance when trying to land a job, with many job applications designed to weed out older candidates and face-to-face interview biases ready to eliminate the few that make it to that stage.

This can all be exacerbated for older women, who face even more hurdles to earning an interview or a job offer due to the many other biases that already exist surrounding working women.

How To Prevent Ageism in the Workplace

If you are an older American and feel like you are experiencing ageism or age discrimination at your job, it is not something that you should take lightly. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 is meant to protect you and your employment.

Document the Incidents

The best thing you can do when facing ageism is to document the incidents as thoroughly and frequently as you can, especially if they take place in front of other employees. This can range from hurtful comments that may count as harassment to being denied opportunities or promotions due to your age.

Speak with Your Manager

After you have documented the incidents, you can speak with your manager and lay out your causes for concern. You can also file a formal complaint with your company’s human resources department so that there is a running record showing that you have experienced ageism.

Consider Legal Action

If the problems persist, are more severe or if your employer doesn’t attempt to stop the discrimination, then you could opt to look into potential legal action. You can report discrimination to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

For Employers: Pursue Diversity and Inclusion Training

Beyond individual struggles with age discrimination, there are also significant changes that employers can make to their workplaces to help cut back on the effects of ageism. One big way to do this would be to start thinking of age as part of the regular diversity and inclusion decisions that companies already make.

“It’s great that all of these employers are focusing on diversity,” Weinstock said. “It’s wonderful. But diversity needs to go beyond gender, race and ethnicity. It also needs to include age.”

Ways That Companies Can Address Ageism
  • Include age as part of diversity
  • Adopt hiring practices that don’t skew towards younger workers
  • Have an inclusive and welcoming workplace culture
  • Have a multigenerational workforce

A major way for employers to address age discrimination could be the adoption and encouragement of developing multigenerational workforces. This means that a company intentionally blends and includes employees from every generation, allowing for a melting pot of skills, view points and experience.

“They’ve done a lot of research in Europe where companies have actually intentionally built these multigenerational teams,” said Weinstock. “And they are more productive. The workers are more engaged and there is less absenteeism. So, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Age Discrimination Resources

Some older Americans may feel an employer has been ageist towards them, but are unsure if what they have experienced counts as age discrimination. You might be able to find out at ABAFreeLegalAnswers.org, which is part of the American Bar Association. This service lets you connect with a lawyer for free if you have basic legal questions.

As far as educating yourself on ageism, how to recognize it and how to prevent it, there are many options out there. ChangingTheNarrativeco.org includes a number of recommended books on age discrimination, including “A Manifesto Against Ageism and Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons.”

If you’re looking for something to listen to instead, Katie Couric hosted a podcast episode on ageism speaking with activists and covering the costs of age discrimination.

If you are an employer or manager, the Society For Human Resources Management includes lots of information and tips on how to avoid ageism.

Last Modified: September 21, 2021

17 Cited Research Articles

  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021, July 27). Older Adult Mental Health. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/olderadultmentalhealth.html
  2. AARP. (July 12, 2021). Tackling Age Discrimination Will Advance Workplace Equity. Retrieved from https://blog.aarp.org/thinking-policy/tackling-age-discrimination-will-advance-workplace-equity
  3. World Health Organization. (2021, March 18). Ageism is a Global Challenge. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news/item/18-03-2021-ageism-is-a-global-challenge-un
  4. World Health Organization. (2021, March 18). Ageing: Ageism. https://www.who.int/westernpacific/news/q-a-detail/ageing-ageism
  5. South Dakota State University. (2021, February 21). 5 Examples of Everyday Ageism. Retrieved from https://extension.sdstate.edu/5-examples-everyday-ageism
  6. Barnes, C. (2020, September 28). Gendered Ageism is the New Sexism. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinessdevelopmentcouncil/2020/09/28/gendered-ageism-is-the-new-sexism/?sh=609457f214b1
  7. AARP. (2020, January 30). Age Discrimination Costs the Nation $850 Billion, Study Finds. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/info-2020/age-discrimination-economic-impact.html
  8. AARP. (2020, January 13). Face-To-Face Job Interviews Can Trigger Age Bias. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/work/working-at-50-plus/info-2020/job-interviews-age-discrimination.html
  9. Barnes, P. (2020, January 6). Age Discrimination Stars When an Employer Becomes Aware of an Older Worker’s Age. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/patriciagbarnes/2020/01/06/age-discrimination-starts-when-an-employer-becomes-aware-of-an-older-workers-age/?sh=33da7f1a19ce
  10. Rocks, P. (2020, January 3). Ageism in Marketing is Not Only Harmful; It’s Bad for Business. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2020/01/03/ageism-in-marketing-is-not-only-harmful-its-bad-for-business/?sh=64c7730c745b
  11. AARP. (2019, December 30). 7 Signs You’ve Been a Victim of Age Discrimination. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/work/working-at-50-plus/info-2019/age-discrimination-signs.html
  12. Changing the Narrative. (2018, July 18). Books to read about ageism. Retrieved from https://changingthenarrativeco.org/2018/07/10/books-on-ageism/
  13. United States Senate Special Committee on Aging. (2017, December). America’s Aging Workforce: Opportunities and Challenges. Retrieved from https://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Aging%20Workforce%20Report%20FINAL.pdf
  14. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2017, July 1). Job characteristics and mental health for older workers. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28575306/
  15. U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). Age Discrimination. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/discrimination/agedisc
  16. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (n.d.). Age Discrimination. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/age-discrimination
  17. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (n.d.). The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/age-discrimination-employment-act-1967
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