Ever been told you’re too young to understand something? Or too old to get a meme, perhaps? We’ve probably all been judged based on our age at some point in our lives, and — chances are — we will be judged again.
Age discrimination is an equity, diversity and inclusion issue that is talked about much less than other forms of bias, but it’s nevertheless important. In fact, according to a 2021 report, age discrimination is the most commonly reported form of workplace discrimination.
Although you might wish otherwise, most of us spend a significant portion of our lives working, so it’s in everyone’s interest to think about how age discrimination affects us and our colleagues, too.
What is age discrimination?
Age discrimination is when someone is unfairly disadvantaged because of their age in a way that cannot be objectively justified. It’s a form of prejudice where people make judgements on others based on preconceived notions and opinions — rather than on fact.
In the UK, age discrimination has been illegal since 2006, something which was further codified in the Equality Act 2010. It’s a big problem in current workforces, where people are retiring later and later. The UK’s population is changing: already, there are more 60-year-olds than 19-year-olds. By 2050, one in four people will be over 65. This creates the potential for age discrimination to start hugely impacting people’s careers.
Not only that, but age discrimination can limit advancement opportunities, reduce a person’s earning potential, and even lead to premature job loss. It can also stop someone from being hired for the right job, even if they make a great candidate.
You might ask: What even causes age discrimination? Why does it happen? Well, it’s usually a kind of unconscious bias. Unconscious, or implicit, bias is where we make judgements on other people based on our internalised stereotypes, often without even knowing we’re doing it. It can be tricky to unlearn this behaviour, but thankfully it’s not impossible.
Who does age discrimination affect?
Age discrimination can affect anyone, regardless of age. However, it has the most significant impact on older workers. Not only does it impact older workers’ financial stability, but it can also cause emotional and mental distress. Many older workers feel like they are being pushed out of their jobs or denied opportunities for advancement simply because of their age. According to this 2023 study, 60% of older employees have experienced workplace age discrimination, with 90-95% of those saying it is common. This can lead to feelings of worthlessness, depression, and anxiety.
However, age discrimination in the workplace isn’t just a problem for older employees. It also affects young workers, who are often overlooked or undervalued due to their perceived lack of experience. Younger workers might be infantilised or patronised by older colleagues. This can result in feelings of frustration and demotivation, which can ultimately harm both the individual and the company they work for.
So, what impact does this have on the workplace as a whole? Well, when workers see their colleagues being discriminated against, it sets a poor example and reinforces negative stereotypes. This can create a toxic work environment where ageism is normalised and perpetuated. Companies must recognise that age discrimination affects all employees, regardless of their age, and take steps to address it at all levels of the organisation.
But the impact of age discrimination goes beyond individual employees; it also harms society by depriving us of the knowledge and experience that older workers have to offer. It's time for employers to recognise the value of older workers and create inclusive workplaces where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.
What impact does age discrimination have on a company?
Age discrimination can hurt workplace culture. It can create a sense of division and mistrust among employees, leading to decreased morale and productivity. It can also contribute to a lack of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, as older workers are often overlooked in favour of younger, less experienced candidates.
It can also damage working relationships, even resulting in legal consequences. In British law, age is a protected characteristic, which means employers cannot discriminate against older workers in hiring, firing, promotion, or other employment decisions.
Despite these legal protections, age discrimination remains a common problem in the workplace, since implicit bias can be difficult to spot. Many older workers are reluctant to report discrimination for fear of retaliation or other negative consequences. This can make it difficult to hold employers accountable for their actions.
What you can do about age discrimination in the workplace
Several steps can be taken to address age discrimination in the workplace:
- First and foremost, employers must proactively create a culture of inclusion and diversity. This means valuing the contributions of all employees, regardless of their age or other demographic characteristics.
- Employers can also ensure that their hiring and promotion processes are fair and unbiased. This may involve implementing blind hiring practices or using objective criteria to evaluate candidates.
- Finally, if comfortable doing so, employees should speak out against age discrimination when they see it. This can involve reporting incidents of discrimination to HR or other relevant authorities, or simply speaking up when they witness unfair treatment.
In conclusion, age discrimination is a serious problem that affects many workers in today's workplace. By taking proactive steps to address this issue, employers can create a more inclusive and diverse workplace that values the contributions of all employees, regardless of their age.