Age Discrimination in the Workplace: Three Myths About Older Workers, Debunked

myths about older workers

Australians now enjoy longer, healthier lives, and a growing number continue working long past traditional retirement age. In January 2018, Australians aged 65 and over had a workforce participation rate of 13% (17% for men and 10% for women), compared with 8% in 2006.

Working longer brings various benefits from income, to purpose, to social engagement. However, age discrimination is a major problem that prevents some workers from realising their goals — or pushes them out entirely. This also means employers miss out on an experienced and knowledgeable talent pool.

In short, it’s time to rethink what it means to be “old.” To learn more, we spoke with Dr. Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. An expert in human resources, public policy and talent management, Cappelli offers important insights to help identify — and debunk — some common myths about hiring older workers.

Age discrimination is common, but baseless

“[D]iscrimination has common roots in fear of differences,” Cappelli explains. “Myths persist when we don’t see evidence, and we haven’t had [a contradictory] experience ourselves.”

For example, employers may assume older workers will only accept high salaries. “If you are an employer who won’t interview older people because you don’t think they will accept the pay, then you don’t change your view,” says Cappelli. “But if you think about it, applicants know what the jobs pay and they wouldn’t apply if it was impossible for them.”

These myths create widespread challenges, with the result that older workers may face bias when applying for jobs or feel that they are being pressured into premature retirement. Meanwhile, pushing older workers out of sight perpetuates the negative stereotype that they don’t belong.

It’s bad business to let mistaken beliefs get in the way of a great hire, because “older workers have all the things employers say they want” such as strong interpersonal skills and job experience that doesn’t require training, says Cappelli.

Myth #1: Older workers are counting the days until retirement

According to Cappelli, the biggest myth about older employees is that they’re “burnt out” and can’t wait to stop working. “They can be [burnt out], of course,” he says. “And people who have been doing the same thing for a very long time are likely to be bored by it. That’s true for workers who aren’t older, as well.” In fact, many older workers are eager to extend their careers — and not just for the money.

In “Managing the Older Worker,” which Cappelli co-authored with Georgetown University professor Bill Novelli, they find that these workers want what we all want: friendly colleagues, respect and an opportunity to use their skills for a worthwhile project. They also find working keeps them mentally and physically active and socially connected.

Ultimately, many older workers want to stay engaged on the job but with the flexibility to enjoy this new stage of their careers, preferring part-time work.

Myth #2: Older workers don’t have today’s skills

Another common myth is that older workers don’t have the necessary skills to succeed in today’s workplaces.

We all live in a digital world — encompassing email, smartphones, e-books, virtual assistants and more — and the older generation relies on today’s technologies as much as the overall population does.

What’s more, many older workers express a desire to continue learning and growing professionally. Far from being “burnt out,” they perform well at tasks that utilise their years of professional knowledge, experience and critical thinking skills and are excited to put their talents to use while learning new, marketable skills.

Myth #3: Older workers won’t report to younger managers

But aren’t older workers uncomfortable reporting to younger managers?

Cappelli flips the script, suggesting instead that some younger managers may be uncomfortable managing people with more experience than they have. This myth equates age with on-the-job seniority and is outdated in today’s multigenerational workplace.

“It is possible that the older subordinate will find it difficult to accept directions from someone much younger,” but Cappelli argues that tough situations can be defused according to how the younger supervisor handles them. “If [managers] respect what employees of any age know, [older workers] aren’t as likely to get resentful.”

Encouraging positive relationships between younger managers and older workers upends traditional ideas about leadership and challenges ageist assumptions. “Discrimination has common roots in fear of differences [and] comfort associating with those with whom we are familiar,” says Cappelli. “The less exposure you have to them, the more the bias.”

By supporting both older employees and younger managers, employers provide new models of seniority at work and actively challenge this bias in action.

Attract older workers and help them thrive in new roles

Many people in Australia choose to retire when they become eligible for the Age Pension (currently between 65-67). Though now that people are living for longer, some are choosing to stay in the workforce for longer. When employers fail to consider older workers, they lose out. “It’s a huge part of the labour force that [they are] not going to see,” says Cappelli.

But when it comes to debunking myths about this sector, “there has not been the pushback from older workers the way there has been from other groups,” he explains— ageism doesn’t receive the same attention as other forms of discrimination, such as race or gender.

Cappelli hopes this will change as employers learn the benefits of hiring older job seekers, including “better interpersonal skills and maturity.” This connects closely to the growing demand for soft skills in the workplace, as older workers are well-suited to meet those needs.

Openness and communication are key when recruiting older workers, Cappelli says, and employers must be aware of unconscious biases they may have against this talent pool. For instance, hiring managers shouldn’t assume to know what an older job seeker wants in terms of salary or schedule. And this goes both ways: Job seekers need to speak up during the hiring process and express their preferences on such issues as promotions and having a younger supervisor.

If your company is excited to tap into this rich talent pool but doesn’t know where to start, “recruiting older workers is like recruiting any group — just take a fraction of the energy directed at millennials, and devote it to the much bigger cohort of older workers,” says Cappelli. “Find where they are, give them the message that you are interested in them and applications will come.”

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