Post written by
Patti Temple Rocks
Head of Client Impact at ICF Next and Author of "I’m Not Done: It’s Time to Talk About Ageism in the Workplace."
I believe one of the reasons that ageism is so pervasive in the workplace is the abundance of unfounded stereotypes about workers over the age of 50. These stereotypes often paint older workers as technologically incompetent, stubborn and dead set against any kind of professional development. To be frank, these stereotypes are total nonsense.
However, our society is so overrun with stereotypes about older people that’s it easy to -- even unintentionally -- fall into ageist thinking. Let’s acknowledge some of the most popular myths about older workers and look at some ways companies can make sure they’re leading their teams void of this thinking.
Can’t Master New Skills: I find that it’s the foundational skills -- leadership, detail-oriented work, organization, listening, writing and problem-solving -- that make employees ideal candidates to learn new skills. According to one study, older workers want to learn: 74% of workers age 45 to 74 say the opportunity to learn something new is critical to their view of an ideal job, and 58% say that job training is an essential element of that ideal employment.
Don’t Understand Technology (Aren’t Digital Natives): What is a “digital native” anyway? Basically, it’s a term for a person who grew up knowing how to use Snapchat, Twitter and other social platforms. While these skills can be beneficial to many organizations, the “digital native” descriptor can also lead to the erroneous presumption that only people who grew up with technology will understand it.
Aren’t Creative: In my experience, people left in the same job for a long time can become less creative. But put that person in a new job, and they’ll come up with new ideas. More diverse teams have been shown to be highly productive in areas that require creative thinking, such as research and development and marketing. No matter what business you are in, when you combine the wisdom and experience of age with the exuberance and open-mindedness of youth, the result is often innovative ideas delivered in a savvy, strategic way.
Can’t Handle Stress: Experience equips older workers to put crisis in context and deal with it effectively. The first time I dealt with a major issue at a Fortune 50 company, I was slightly terrified by the prospect of talking to the media. I gave a quote that was certainly not my finest, but over time, my experience enabled me to be confident, not terrified, and it also made me calm in the face of crisis. (My quotes improved, too!)
Miss Work Because Of Illness: This assumption of older workers reflects a cultural association of age with sickness. Based on what I’ve seen and according to observations discussed in a recent article on the topic, “There has been, perhaps, no more pervasive lifestyle shift in the American contemporary scene than the desire among Baby Boomers to lead active, healthy lives.” While the writer notes that this is not a trend unique to baby boomers, it’s also true that anyone of any age may potentially miss work due to illness at anytime
Are Burned Out, Tired Or Unhappy: “Waiting for the gold watch” is an outdated cliché, if you ask me. An Aon Hewitt study done for AARP found that workers over 50 are the most engaged age group in the workforce. And research by consulting firm Towers Watson, reported on by the Financial Post, indicates that companies with higher levels of employee engagement had profit margins three times higher than companies with lower levels of engagement.
Addressing Stereotypes In Your Leadership
As a people leader for nearly my entire career, I’ve seen firsthand that the cost is too high to allow these stereotypes to exist in the workplace. Not only do they affect how older workers are evaluated, but they can also impact opportunities for these workers. If you buy into the stereotype that people over 50 aren’t creative anymore or that they can’t come up with new ideas, you’re less likely to ask someone that age to lead a team that’s in charge of coming up with an innovative new product.
Stereotypes are often not accurate or helpful. If you ask me, they’re just lazy. If you find yourself making judgments about any group of people, stop quickly.
As a leader, you can (and should) do your part by making sure that unconscious bias is addressed in your organization. The first step is to acknowledge that it most likely exists in your company and probably within you. Harvard University, an institution that has done research on implicit bias, offers a self-assessment tool that I encourage all leaders to explore.
Once leaders have learned more about the source of these stereotypes, they will be in a position to do something about them. This action may be as simple as a conscious effort to understand the different groups and cultures in the organization (to walk a mile in their shoes, as my mother would say). Or it may be something more involved like mandating training for all leaders.
In the meantime, we can start by making a conscious effort to let go of all stereotypes and work to evaluate every individual as just that, an individual.