Ageism in the Limelight


“You’re HOW old?!”

“Your generation wouldn’t understand.”

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Ever heard comments like these at work? If so, ageism strikes again.

Age discrimination, or ageism, occurs when employees are treated unfairly because of their age.

Whether it emerges from conscious or unconscious bias, ageism affects younger and older workers alike. So much so that it has caught the attention of storytellers in Hollywood.

From the big screen to the TV screen, we are seeing more and more plots where the character’s age significantly impacts his or her career. Take for example:

  • The Younger TV series that follows a 40-something-year-old woman who pretends to be in her 20s in order to appear as a digital native and get hired.
  • Or the movie, The Intern, which tells the tale of an experienced man who gets bored of retired life and goes back to work—as a senior intern.

While these depictions may be extreme examples, they expose an issue that is widely felt by many.  

According to a recent report from SHRM, The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture, approximately 26 percent of workers ages 65 to 74 have experienced age-related discrimination at work; 20 percent of those ages 25 to 34 say the same. Currently, only workers age 40 and above are protected from age-related discrimination under U.S. employment law. But these report findings clearly show workers of all ages are experiencing the negative tolls of ageism. The consequences are not just legal, they are damaging to bottom lines and to workplace cultures.

For the first time ever, the workforce is comprised of five generations of workers. Organizations that embrace workers of all ages reap the benefits of this synergy. For instance, they can tap into the years of experience that older workers bring to the table, while also capitalize on new ways of thinking presented by younger workers.

On the flip side, if ageism is left unchecked, we miss out on invaluable mentoring and idea exchange opportunities—and worse, it can lead to toxic culture at work. This should set off alarm bells, as one in five people have left a job due to workplace culture. To put that into perspective, the cost of that turnover over the past five years alone is $223 billion. To remedy ageism, a major contributing factor to toxic workplace culture, HR professionals can start by initiating honest discussions about this issue and empowering their People Managers to do the same.

Change often starts with a single conversation. While this plot twist may be missing from TV shows and movies, HR professionals, along with People Managers, play an important role in the real-life story of quashing ageism in the workplace.

When we create workplaces where employers and all employees thrive together, everyone wins. What are some solutions for addressing ageism that can help make workplace culture better?