Age discrimination is widespread but should be fought in the workplace

By Catherine W. Ng | Wednesday, 10 Oct 2018

It’s perhaps ironic that we discriminate on the ground of age, because we all have been young and we’ll all grow old. Ageing is inevitable and universal. Age is different from, for example, gender or ethnicity in that generally speaking, we have no lived experience of other sexes and ethnicity, but we all have or will have experiences of other people’s ages.

So, why do we stereotype younger and older workers? Why don’t most of us reflect on our younger, immature selves more often, and why aren’t we more considerate toward older people, whom one day we’ll become?

The eight contestants of the once-hugely popular TV game show The Weakest Link answer questions and compete for a cash jackpot. But the one who answers the most questions correctly is not necessarily the one who wins. After each round, the players vote to eliminate one contestant. The general strategy is that in the earlier rounds, weaker players are voted out in order to build a bigger jackpot, and in the latter rounds, stronger players are voted out as each contestant begins to compete for the jackpot.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner of the best-selling book and podcast series Freakonomics analysed 160 episodes of The Weakest Link to discern possible discrimination on the grounds of sex, or race, or age. They discovered that voting patterns are congruent with the strategy when it comes to women and men, and contestants of different races. However, older players are consistently voted out at a higher rate than usual in all the rounds.

Age discrimination is entrenched and endemic for several reasons. First is the all-too-familiar edict that “you should act your age”. For examples, many of us feel rather uncomfortable watching five-year-olds preaching, or seeing octogenerians pole dancing.

Secondly, we have rather fixed notions about the right time for some life events—have fun when young; study hard while in school; after you graduate, find work to secure financial independence; then start a family, and….much later, retire and enjoy life.

Thirdly, the law stipulates certain rights for people at certain ages. For examples, there are legal ages for drinking alcohol, voting, working, and benefiting from some social welfare such as old-age allowance. To become Chief Executive of the HKSAR, one must also be at least 40 years old.

While the above three social phenomena could be considered as natural and legitimate, they contribute to a normalisation of age discrimination behaviours.

The first mention of ageism dates to 1969, when American psychiatrist Robert Butler published an article in the journal Gerontology about bigotry against old people. He found that his patients weren’t most anxious about getting old, but about being misunderstood, disregarded and undervalued.

I think people of all ages share this anxiety, because it’s only human to want otherwise. Hence, bosses and supervisors should not presume all young workers are job-hoppers, and all older workers are just hanging around for retirement benefits. Individuals should be evaluated individually.

Butler also wrote that one good way for us to remove our prejudices and stereotypes is to befriend people of other age groups. Mentorship programs that pair up older with younger workers could facilitate this process. Besides ameliorating age discrimination, these programs provide a structure for experienced staff to share their wealth of implicit knowledge with new comers, and to help them learn the ropes more quickly, and more importantly with fewer mishaps. Accidents and wrong doings due to inexperience do harm to young persons’ confidence level and self-esteem. On the other hand, employees with less work experience provide fresh perspectives that could help to rejuvenate everyone’s enthusiasm and energy level.

While it’s difficult to eliminate age discrimination entirely, improving communication and interpersonal relationship between persons of different ages enhances understanding and cooperation.  

Catherine W. Ng

Senior Teaching Fellow, Department of Management and Marketing, Faculty of Business, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

People Management People Development HR strategy

Related Posts