How to Be Fair to Older Workers – and Younger

Work-related age bias seems to be on the rise. According to an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) survey of more than a thousand job-seekers aged 45 to 74, 66% have either experienced ageism directly or seen it in action.

Is 35 Old in Tech?

It may be particularly strong in technology companies. Last December, for example, technology news included a class action suit that was filed against a number of large technology companies, including Amazon and T-Mobile, alleging that their Facebook advertisements excluded older workers. IBM is alleged to have made a practice of culling older workers, numbering some 20,000 eventually, from its ranks.

Plus, despite discussions of the lack of gender and racial diversity in tech companies, the sector has been the recipient of far more age-related complaints than gender or racial ones. There is a widespread perception in tech that workers over the age of 35 can be considered old. The median age of U.S. workers is currently 42, but in the tech sector, that median falls nearly a decade.

Why? A number of factors combine to foster age-related concerns in technology. First, there is a widespread presumption that the young — Millennials and Generation Z — are digital natives. They are more fluent in digital technology, goes this thinking, and more likely not just to adopt it but to embrace it as the only way to be.

Second, there are related presumptions that older workers may not be as flexible and easy to train as younger ones. Flexibility and ongoing training combine to make a nimble worker, and nimbleness is highly prized not only in tech, but across the U.S. workforce.

Third, older workers may, in fact, cost more than younger ones. Salaries usually progress with age. Utilization of benefits may be heavier in older workers than in younger ones.

Ironically, as a recent article in the Harvard Business Review points out, this emphasis on the young as the ideal digital native is occurring just as older Americans are living longer and maintaining health for longer periods, than any generation before them.

Optimal workplaces utilize the experience of older people for the benefit of younger people. 

Develop Strategies to Value Older Workers

How can the U.S. workforce be fair to its older workers — and maintain its fairness to younger ones?

The HBR suggests that one method is to begin valuing emotional intelligence, and qualities like judgment, experience, and wisdom, as much as cutting-edge tech know-how.

One business strategy step toward that lies in divorcing the word “elder” from the word “elderly.” The word “elderly” has something of an image problem, with connotations that are far from spry, not to mention cutting-edge.

But “elder” has connotations of wisdom. It also brings to mind advice rather than directives, and guiding the younger generations rather than getting in their way.

As the population ages, it’s likely that older and younger workers will be together in the workplace. Managers would do well to consider how older workers’ experience could help younger workers, not hinder them.

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