In my younger days, on a marketability Likert scale (10 being “Makes the Cut” to “We’re Looking in a Different Direction”), I was a solid 8. But the “different direction” response, which I have heard more than once, really rankles my constitution. Now that I have hobbled into my 60s (and apparently descending to a solid 1 on the Likert scale), I endeavored to find incontrovertible evidence to test a hypothesis: age discrimination is alive and well, regardless of EEOC guidelines and much hype from employers. This hypothesis arose from a calculation of an informal personal value ratio: marketability = number of applications per year (countless): invitations to interview (count on one hand): offers (zero).
Research limitations disclaimer: Any self-respecting researcher is obligated to fully disclose biases, so these factors are fairly relevant:
- I have earned four degrees.
- I have moved around quite a bit, in and out of management and job security.
- I tend to chase challenge, change, and growth.
- I side with Kris Dunn’s “Fistful of Talent” commentary: Those of us older workers who are more and more frequently ascribed to Tolstoy’s dustbin of history require “minimal ramp up time” and add value by being able to do “more than is expected.”
- My 40 years of avocational, foundational, and professional experience has included successes, failures, mistakes and plenty of lessons learned, and have produced ample prerequisite skills to remain a viable and valuable human resource. I would gladly return to some of those jobs (hardware store utility player); others not so much (4 a.m. newspaper truck driver). But I am not dead yet and have more to offer.
Leadership and Training That Disables Cultural StereotypesHundreds of qualitative, incidental indicators and commentary support the hypothesis that age discrimination is alive and well. These qualitative artifacts immediately drew my attention:
- Images (on employers’ career pages). Consider the very first of many career pages that I explored for a company that shall remain nameless. In the photo above the subtitle “Growing into Management,” one finds an image of a graying, white male; above “People,” there are bean bag chairs, and no one who appears to be over 30 years of age sitting in them. Examining scores of other businesses’ career webpages, the implied pattern appears to be, “Hey older men and women, take a gander, and self-select out. We seek youthful exuberance.
- Try browsing for “classroom training” images. Here’s what I mostly found: white males in ties speaking to a mostly white audience. Some exceptions: young white females speaking to mostly white audiences. A few contain more representational populations, yet again, either a younger white male or white female are the instructors. These are interspersed with older manager white guys amiably and supportively lurching over the younger staff, everyone smiling about a work-a-day solution. I did hit on one image where the camera captures a classroom of learners. A young black female sits front and center, eagerly hand up, surrounded by all sorts of “people,” and one lone gray haired white male sitting in the back of the class. He was slightly out of focus. I selected that one for the background in one of the frames of a recent training module. What all of these images have in common, however, is absence of older folks, which implies that older folks either aren’t part of the team, won’t, can’t, or do not want to learn. Aside from being far from Romantic, I don’t think this is what Keats meant by negative capability.
- A job search for “seniors/older workers” yields next to nothing (well, actually lots of part-time jobs). Even the AARP job search site produces approximately the same results as Indeed or any other job search engine. And clicking on “Jobs for Older Workers” web ads, defaults the user to general search engines (whatever happened to truth in advertising?). Urgent openings: Uber, Lyft, House Sitter, Grocery Store Sales Demonstrators, and Franchise Opportunities: Be your Own Boss.
Ideal Versus OlderI have read how much critical thinking and analytical skills are needed in the 21 st century workplace. My skills in this arena are very fine tuned. Moreover, I am a lifelong learner. (In fact, when I’m dead, I’d like my ashes ground into pulp, made into paper, and placed in a book). While I may need to be trained up a bit (who doesn’t in one form or another), I am also very adaptable, flexible, have a great sense of humor (as in self-effacing if sometimes morose), and a whole bunch of other leader and follower traits that would make the ambitious blush. Yet the longer I have searched for jobs, the more I have decidedly felt, the shingle handing above the door reads, “ Older Workers Need Not Apply.” Nor does the phrase, “70 is the new 65!” instill great confidence since, economically, 65 was the old 62.
To the why of new versus old. Do we prefer the facsimile (obsolescence intended) to the archetype? If we’re not shunning competence and originality, why is age a disqualifier? Older workers have too many health problems? Accommodations of all sorts are made for all ages of workers, to which we should conclude health is a moot point, not a disqualifier. Some elders, much to the displeasure of youngsters, are genetically disposed to an old age. (Ironically, youngsters are not genetically disposed to young age, unless you find yourself on Keatsian Grecian Urn).
Age aside, “suited” and “ill-suited” permeates every age. Did you know that the average age of Nobel Prize winners is 59, and the most frequent age bracket is 60-64? One might be thinking, but that’s not when they actually conducted the research; that answer is 41, However, while there’s certainly an opportunity for debate about the mental health of older presidents of the United States, in the past 30 years, the average age of biomedical researchers has steadily increased. The average age of an investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rose from 39 to 51. Or, speaking of context, should we consider the implications of reverse discrimination, when exploring the average ages of CEOS?
Of course, a misplaced response to this article is to use it as a tactical guide to be less obvious in discriminating against others. The search results for “valuing/devaluing” older workers, only confirmed the “Past Their Prime” stereotype. Here’s a brief sample of actual articles (followed by my immediate reaction to the article title or information):
- “The Ideal Worker vs. the Older Worker” (OMG, someone should have massaged that headline; does the article actually convey what the title suggests?).
- “11 Ways for Older Employees to Stay Relevant at Work” (Still waiting for the companion piece, “11 Ways Workplaces Stay Relevant with Older Employees.”)
- From the Bureau of Labor Statistics, top of the list for 2016 workers 55 and older: Archivists, curators, and museum technicians (Really? Those are on the top of the list? OMG. This isn’t helping any.)
- From the National Council on Aging: “As the population ages, older Americans will play an increasingly important role in our economy and America’s leadership in the world marketplace.” (So, the infirmed are valued consumers in the marketplace, just not invited to work in it. Nice.)
- “Tech Job Market is Hot, but Older Workers Struggle” (Apparently in every industry, but particularly this one, women, too.)
- “For Older Workers, Getting a New Job is a Crapshoot” (And as everyone knows, the odds in Craps and Roulette favor the house.)
- “How to Attract and Keep Millennial Workers” speaks to “talent gaps” and cites a Deloitte statistic that 75 percent of Millennials would like the option of working from home (Older workers, too, and for many more reasons than variables such as automation, mobility, and to eliminate unnecessary tasks and maximize productivity.)
Leadership Implications and Training ImperativesThe fact is that from advertising, to careers page web presence, to candidate selection, and to job offer, how any worker enters the equation begins (tenor and tone) and ends (last word) with leadership. The foremost responsibility of leaders is to set the tone to eliminate discounting and discrimination against capable older workers, or as the Department of Labor National Technical Assistance Leadership Center states, “Create a work environment that attracts qualified workers of all ages.”
Echoing conclusions about internal training needs for workers aged 50+ by the Center on Aging and Work, is a call for solely needed age-diversity training. In understanding diversity, our nation often mistakes tolerance for acceptance. Tolerance, while a noble first step, allows prejudices and biases to remain intact. Only acceptance sheds the veil of stereotyping, discounting, and devaluing the human being.
Therefore, the first leadership learning/training question to answer is: What’s in plain sight? This seems deceptively simple. The homework is simple: Take a look at your marketing. The images used are part of your brand and reflect your prejudices. Marshall McLuhan (age showing-off) might say, “So much for subtlety.” Inviting all workers to participate in the workforce, as well as delivering concomitant growth experiences and performance outcomes that live up to ethical expectations, requires a deep dive. The training imperative requires exploration of conceptual principles; for example, what’s your concept/misconception/translation of what “age” means?
The second question is more simple: What are our 21st century expectations and values? In other words, we value what, and whom, and why? Are there embedded preconceptions about who we value less? Do our actions truly represent our values and valuing? Particularly, our learning opportunities should regularly insist upon a values check. These should include periodic, substantive conversations about entertaining and appealing to and accepting every applicant.
Other relevant first steps for leadership discussions and training focus:
- Avoid stereotyping of anyone at any time for any reason. Each person is unique. Look beyond the obvious.
- Avoid stereotypes when training for appreciation of diversity. Think of diversity as a salad bowl, not a melting pot. This way, all of those characteristics we ascribe to diversity (and the one’s we overlook) should be a reflection up and down the chain. If your management is disproportionately aged or your incoming is disproportionately young, there’s something systematically wrong with the program.
- Analysis of policy and law as it applies to governing instincts, hiring, valuing, and recruiting is not only a good political exercise, but it’s also a great assessment and training/learning opportunity.
- Of a myriad of opportunities, a few solid training-related suggestions come from SHRM.org. For starters, recruitment training should include attention to partnerships with organizations that focus on helping older workers find jobs. Define and discuss what we mean by “over-qualified.” The EEOC approves targeting of older workers, does your recruitment language? Does career training include transfer and repositioning policies and planning? In succession, are organizations sensitive to knowledge management strategies? For new workers (whether young or old), are one-on-one mentoring and training protocol/checklists fully developed and deployed?
- Are your internships or apprentice programs open to older workers? If not, why not?
The benefits of hiring older workers are well documented, as are the suggestions about how to best stimulate productive interactions within intergenerational workforces. Unfortunately, they still lag behind predictions about the present day outcomes following the halcyon late 1940s and early 1950s. Age does not discriminate against any worker raising one’s hand to lead or participate in a new project. Age does not discriminate against participating in meaningful work, one’s drive, belonging, nor sense of purpose in pursuing excellence and organizational goals or mission. One merely needs to be a part of a fair hiring process, valued, then coached, taught, and led. Greater consciousness and better leadership training with respect to all sorts of discrimination is not only good business sense, the effort appears to be more and more a moral imperative.