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Many see Anthony Fauci, MD, as the face of the American response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether vilified or admired, Fauci has sought to shoot straight on the challenge posed by the virus and the best paths for responding to it.
Named chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden this year and going as far back as the AIDS epidemic during Reagan’s tenure, Dr. Fauci brings decades of experience on infectious diseases. He turned 80 in December.
He and many others offer examples of how older workers can make dramatic contributions to the nation, organizations or business initiatives. However, older workers also can be defined — often negatively — by stereotypes associated with age. Too often, valuable knowledge and experience are marginalized because of preconceived societal notions.
A growing problem
Ageism is a growing concern as the nation’s workforce transitions from Baby Boomers (the oldest of whom are well into retirement) to different modes of employment, increased uses of technology and an evolving economy. Even though the country has tried to protect the rights of older workers, older talent is still being pushed to the sidelines.
Age discrimination occurs when a person’s age impacts interactions with someone. In the workplace, ageism can affect an employee’s status in multiple ways — for example, someone’s age can improperly affect decisions on employment such as hiring, firing or layoff, according to Project WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now), whose mission is to eliminate harassment and create more respectful workplaces.
Ageism can affect compensation for employment as well. For older workers, it may mean discriminatory variations in pay, benefits or promotions. Finally, ageism can simply involve verbal or other harassment, which could occur when co-workers or supervisors make derogatory comments or provoke other nonverbal forms of discrimination.
Regulating age discrimination falls under the purview of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which frequently offers guidance on nuances of federal regulations. For example, earlier this year, it noted that job postings conveying age-slanted preference — using terms like “recent graduate,” “young” or “energetic” — exemplify a standard recruiting practice that may evoke systemic age discrimination.
The EEOC is responsible for enforcing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which was enacted in 1968. But challenges facing older workers remain. With advances in medical technology, workers are healthier, living longer and consequently staying on the job longer than their parent’s generation. We’re also seeing a lot more diversity in STEM fields and overall more educated workers. Despite these positive health-related changes, age discrimination still persists largely because of prejudices and outdated attitudes about older generations.
Since the EEOC began tracking discriminatory workplace practices in 1997, the number of filings received between 2005 and 2016 related to age discrimination rose 88.5% (from 14,893 to 28,073) — representing the highest and lowest number of age-related filings recorded in a 23-year period.
However, many experts believe complaints filed with the EEOC don’t completely reflect the full extent of age discrimination in the workplace; for example, the data doesn’t include complaints that are filed with state or local fair-employment-practices agencies and doesn’t account for cases that simply aren’t reported to any agency.
Age discrimination is expected to surface in different forms in the current economic environment, where employment appears to be growing post-pandemic. Still, unemployed older workers in their 50s look for jobs twice as long as younger job seekers.
Beyond just employment, older workers say age discrimination is pervasive, common and normalized. An AARP study of workers between 45 and 74 years of age found most people believe it begins when employees reach their 50s. Twenty-two percent say it begins earlier (30s to 40s), and 17% claim age discrimination occurs in one’s 60s.
It’s particularly vexing for certain industries that are dependent on older workers. For example, healthcare wrestles with nursing shortages, even as nearly 40% of its workforce is older than 55. The average age of registered nurses was 51 in 2017, according to the National Nursing Workforce Study.
Responses to age discrimination
In a letter from Charlotte Burrows, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, recent age bias lawsuits have cost companies from $115,000 to $12 million — these fines stem from policies attributed to a range of age discrimination cases, from systemically laying off people over age 40 to being guilty of an ageist pension plan. In the last six years alone, the EEOC collected $438 million for age-discrimination victims in pre-litigation resolutions.
Not intervening to defuse workplace cultures that discriminate against older workers can have other negative effects on employee morale, performance and public perception. With the growth of social media, instances of reported ageism can go viral.
Most HR professionals would probably agree that open communication offers the best solution to identify and resolve issues. Discrimination can be mitigated with awareness of its habitual tendencies and unfounded assumptions. Everyone in the organization needs to be stewards and evangelists, in a sense, speaking up in defense of fellow workers of all ages, races, backgrounds and orientation. Just as companies run annual sexual-harassment training, they also need to include training on age intolerance to bring awareness to the forefront.
As more and more older workers look for job opportunities and professional and social fulfillment by working longer, it’s past time to ensure that they are treated fairly and without prejudice.