Age Discrimination in the Workplace: What Seniors Need to Know

age discrimination

Most people stay active and vibrant through their golden years. They continue to visit with friends and family, pursue their hobbies and passions, and keep bringing their best to their job – or even finding a new one! They stay busy and live life to the fullest. At the same time, they do the things they need to do to stay safe and secure – they slowly change their surroundings with aging in place home modifications, they visit the doctor as needed for whatever might ail them, and they invest in medical alert technology that allows them peace of mind, whether at home or on the go.

But even with the rich life so many elderly adults live every single day, there are unfortunately those who believe that older adults aren’t as productive or savvy as they used to be. Ageism, and age discrimination, can become serious problems.

What is Age Discrimination?

Sometimes the words “ageism” and “age discrimination” are used interchangeably, though they are different things. Age discrimination tends to involve employment. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), age discrimination is “treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age.” There is a law against this, called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA, which protects those who are aged 40 and over.

Ageism, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have to involve employment. It might be visited upon the elderly by medical professionals, social workers, caregivers, or anyone else who sees a person’s age as a detriment. According to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, ageism can be conscious or unconscious, and can affect an older person’s health and work performance. It can affect individuals, social networks, and lead to institutional or cultural biases.[1]

Misconceptions About Age

One in every five workers in the workplace today is aged 55 or older.[2] Unfortunately, the AARP reports that 64% of workers have suffered age discrimination or know someone who has. Much of that might be due to the stigmas or misconceptions surrounding older workers.

Harvard Business Review conducted an in-depth survey of over 10,000 workers to determine whether some of the stereotypes about older workers were true, and the results were a real eye-opener. Here’s what they found[3]:

·         Many people believe that those over a certain age are more likely to be exhausted with their work than those who are younger. But the survey found that in fact, 43% of those under the age of 45 reported feeling exhausted, while only 35% of those over 45 reported exhaustion. Those over the age of 60 were the group least likely to complain that they felt exhaustion.

·         There is a misconception that older workers would prefer to slow down the pace. The survey found that over 50% of those below the age of 45 wanted to slow down, but only 39% of those over 60 wanted the same, and a mere 20% of those over the age of 70 wanted work to move more slowly.

·         Older people were found to enjoy their work just as much as any other age group. No matter the age – from those in their 20s to those in their 70s – those who felt positive about work held steady at just over 50% of all respondents.

The truth is that many seniors still want to work, be social, get out of the house, and make valuable contributions as they earn money.

Age Discrimination is Harmful

According to the World Health Organization, ageism can affect everything from institutions to relationships to individuals themselves. Obviously it can affect the workplace, but it can also lead to patronizing behavior, healthcare rationing, and self-limiting behavior, such as believing you can’t do something in particular solely because of your age.

It’s safe to say that internalized ageism can make you believe that you aren’t as capable or as strong as you used to be, and that can lead to a lack of confidence. It’s important to think about your mental health and how ageism is affecting you on a personal level.

The difficulties that rise from ageism go even further than internalizing the issue. It is associated with an earlier death, on average of 7.5 years. It can lead to poorer mental and physical health. It is associated with slower recovery from disability. And it can lead to serious financial issues for the country at large; in the United States, one in every seven dollars spent on healthcare every year was due to ageism – or $63 billion in total.[4]

Are You a Victim of Ageism?

Have you felt as though you’ve experienced age discrimination in the workplace? The issue can be quite subtle but can slowly erode work relationships and your self-confidence. Here are a few signs of the problem:[5]

·         You aren’t given challenging assignments like you were in the past.

·         You are given more unpleasant or tedious work.

·         You find that you are no longer offered training sessions, attendance at industry conferences, or educational opportunities.

·         You are left out of client meetings.

·         If you take time off as a family caregiver, you get negative comments from co-workers or bosses.

·         You get passed over for raises or promotions.

·         You are put on a “performance improvement plan” even though there seem to have been no issues to justify it.

·         You might hear disparaging comments about your age or retirement plans. These might be direct or passive-aggressive.

When you experience this, it can erode your self-esteem and make the workplace a much more challenging place. You might not enjoy the time you’re there, and look forward to going home. You might even try to hide things about yourself that might make the issue worse, such as tucking away your medical alert pendant or wristwatch, wearing clothing that looks “hip” but makes you uncomfortable, or otherwise trying to “fit in” with co-workers that seem to be marginalizing you.

What About Caregiver Discrimination?

Caregiver discrimination is something that can happen to anyone, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with age. Caregivers for the elderly can face a variety of challenges that make it tough to work a regular schedule. For instance, imagine if your loved one falls down the stairs and winds up with injuries that require hospitalization or a long recovery period. They won’t be able to get around as well. Though a personal alarm button can provide peace of mind, you might still need to be there to help out more often than you were before the fall. That might mean asking for more time off of work to care for your loved one.

Caregiver discrimination happens when the necessary time you must take away from work to care for a loved one, such as leave from work or a flexible or remote schedule, is held against you. This can happen in many ways, such as through a negative performance review, a demotion, detrimental attitudes of co-workers toward you and your situation, or even getting put on an “improvement plan” or outright fired. While a medical alert pendant, bracelet, or watch for the elderly or infirm may help free up a bit of your time each day, caregiving can be very demanding and time-intensive.

If you are dealing with caregiver discrimination, you do have recourse. It starts by reporting the discrimination to your human resources department. Document everything! Include the basics: who, when, where, how, and what. Go into very clear detail. You will want to speak with an attorney and take action by filing a charge with a federal or state agency, but don’t take too long – most states have very short time limits in which you can bring your case.[6] That limit is usually 180 days.

What to Do About Ageism or Caregiver Discrimination

For those who work for large companies, you’re in luck – there are numerous pathways to solving the problem. The unlucky part is that it usually involves litigation. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed in 1967, designed to protect those who are age 40 or older from discrimination in promotions, work assignments and duties, and the hiring or firing process. If the business has fewer than 20 employees, it’s exempt from ADEA. But if it has more, it’s possible to bring litigation under the law to help preserve your job or end age-related harassment.[7]

The ADEA doesn’t necessarily cover discrimination against those caring for seniors, but there are other laws that do. These include:

·         The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This protects those who need to take a leave of absence from work to care for a family member. That family member can be anyone from a small child to an elderly person. The leave can be taken in a variety of ways, with certain conditions, for up to 12 weeks of time. The leave is unpaid.

·         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This protects individuals from any sex stereotype. What does this mean for caregivers of the elderly? It means that men are seen as just as capable as women in caring for their loved one, and a man cannot be penalized for taking leave or making other arrangements for care. For instance, an employer can’t say “that’s a woman’s job” and then punish a man for doing it.

·         The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). This law explicitly prevents discrimination against anyone who provides care to a disabled family member. This means that if your loved one has had a stroke, dementia, or any other issue that makes it difficult to care for themselves, you have a right to not be discriminated against for taking care of them.

There are also state and local laws that might apply to your situation. Don’t hesitate to check with an attorney about the options available to you. 

It’s important to practice due diligence if you or a loved one feels harassed, unappreciated, embattled, or discriminated against in any employment situation. Staying active and healthy into your golden years is imperative, and a positive work environment can play an enormous role in that.