Disrupt the Concept of 'Old' and End Ageism

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek October 30, 2017

This is the fourth in a series of articles about working with different workplace populations. Prior articles examined working with hard-of-hearing employees and colleagues with mental disabilities, as well as changes to the work environment to boost productivity.


SAN FRANCISCO—"Happy 50th birthday! It's all downhill from here."

"We are a 'young' company. Would he fit in?"

"You're on Snapchat? Really?"

"Isn't she too young to lead that team?"

Discriminating, limiting language about age—on both ends of the spectrum—is reflected in the words we use and hear every day and happens subliminally and overtly, said Jean C. Setzfand, senior vice president for programs at AARP in Washington, D.C.

[SHRM members-only presentation: Federal Discrimination Laws]

Setzfand shared her insights from the concurrent session "How to Combat Age Bias at Your Organization" with SHRM Online prior to presenting it at the Society for Human Resource Management 2017 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exhibition here Oct. 25.

Ageism is most blatant in hiring practices, often skewing in favor of younger workers, she said. For example, postings that describe a position as an opportunity to join a "young team" send the message that older workers need not apply. Sometimes the messages are even more blatant, like indicating applicants should have less than 20 years of work experience, Setzfand noted.

Such messages can lead to claims of violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which protects people who are ages 40 and older from job discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for example, recently won a $12 million age bias settlement against Texas Roadhouse for its refusal to hire older workers for front-of-house jobs such as hosts and bartenders, SHRM Online reported June 15.

Breaking Down Bias

Setzfand offered some recommendations for combatting ageism in the workplace:

  • Include people of all ages in your diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy. Only 8 percent of CEOs include age as a dimension of their D&I strategy, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers' 18th annual CEO survey.
  • Consider the messages displayed at your organization, such as on posters or in announcements. Do they only showcase images of employees in their 20s and 30s? Are ageist comments at work viewed as acceptable?
  • Be more age-inclusive in your practices, such as by including older workers on your interview panels.
  • Consider employee resource groups that are multigenerational. Setzfand pointed to Huntington Ingalls Industries' employee resource group, which organized a popular event about bridging the generation gap, as an example. And the company's HR department created a video series that uses employees' personal stories as a way to challenge stereotypes, including those associated with age.
  • Work to dispel outdated myths and assumptions about older workers. It's often thought that older workers are not very tech-savvy, but many software technologies have been developed by Baby Boomers, Setzfand pointed out. Steve Wozniak, born in 1950, and Steve Jobs, born in 1955, invented the Apple I computer, for example. Tim Bray, also born in 1955, is an Internet pioneer known as the father of extensible markup language, or XML.
  • Offer benefits that tend to appeal to older workers, such as paid caregiver leave.
  • Make employee programs, including competency-based learning, available to all employees. It's erroneous, Setzfand said, to think that older workers are less interested in learning and development than their younger co-workers. At Huntington Ingalls, the apprentice program is open to all ages, she noted in her presentation.

Breaking down age bias can help organizations deal with the labor shortage, Setzfand said during her presentation.

She noted that, based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, workers ages 55 and older will be the largest employee group by 2024, followed by employees ages 26 to 34. As people live longer, healthier lives, she explained, the percentage of workers 55 and older participating in the workforce will continue to increase.   

Was this article useful? SHRM offers thousands of tools, templates and other exclusive member benefits, including compliance updates, sample policies, HR expert advice, education discounts, a growing online member community and much more. Join/Renew Now and let SHRM help you work smarter.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Member Benefit: Ask-An-Advisor Service

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.