The Last Acceptable “ism”

First, full disclosure: I am a baby boomer, which makes me one of those “older workers” you hear so much about and are about to hear more. For the last year and a half, I’ve been working for myself, which makes my employer a company whose average worker age is… my age.

We’ve made a lot of progress in my lifetime. Since I was born, it’s become against the law to discriminate in the workplace based on race, religion, sex, or disability. It’s also against the law to discriminate based on age (if a worker is over 40.)

Worker protections ensure that an employer doesn’t make job decisions, including hiring, firing, promotions, training, wages and benefits, based on the factors above. And almost everyone agrees that this is a good thing. We’ve evolved as a society to the point where thinking less of someone based on how or where they were born seems wrong. Until they reach a certain age.

Recent research by NYU’s Michael North and Stanford’s Ashley Martin which found that workers who openly oppose racism and sexism were still prejudiced against older workers. AARP fielded a survey to 1,322 Americans ages 40–65 who were in the workforce or recently exited the workforce as a result of COVID-19. The survey said 78% of older workers saw or experienced age discrimination in the workplace in 2020; in 2018, over 60 percent did.

North and Martin discovered after interviewing 348 people that the younger people were, the more likely they were to hold ageist views on older workers. “Our focus was about this idea of older adults sort of being subtly nudged out the door: It might feel like people aren’t taking you seriously as much as they used to. You’re left out of meetings. You might get talked over. Your opinion might get missed.”

“There’s this sort of subtle tension where older adults are expected to step aside and get out of the way and stop creating this perceived logjam in the distribution of resources or jobs or positions of influence, so the younger generation can get their turn.” The authors found in previous research that men experienced more of this pressure than women. (We’re perceived as less of a threat to take status or resources from the next generation. Yay us.)

It’s jarring to think that young workers who have grown up in a society that values  – in fact, demands – social justice would accept ageism. North and Martin blame society in general and comedians in particular, who still get away with old person jokes, decades after jokes about any other group prove to be career-ending. You can find aisle full of birthday cards and party favors making fun of getting older. Calling someone “over the hill” is still funny.

North and Martin find it remarkable that no one seems to have a problem with this. “And there’s really been no real backlash toward making those kinds of jokes. There hasn’t really been a huge, organized civil rights movement to combat this.” People who object to age jokes are told they’re being overly sensitive.

As with many subtle forms of discrimination, the word “fit” is often code for “more like us.” As is saying an older worker “won’t understand cultural references” or “will have trouble with technology” or “taking direction” or “understanding our (young) customers’ issues.”

Lots of behavior in the workplace has an expiration date, apparently. At some point, ambition, creativity, confidence, healthy anger, even fashion sense, become less “age-appropriate.” First, young workers expect older ones to retire their ambitions, then just to retire. The fact that age discrimination policies apply to anyone at 40 is baffling in itself; most baby boomers intend to work for another 30 years past that age. At 40, most are just getting warmed up. But they’re already considered old by legal standards.

Ageism is one of the last acceptable prejudices (body shaming is also still with us.) It’s one of the strangest ways to discriminate, since it’s the one condition that will affect us all if we live long enough. But at 30, it’s hard to imagine you’ll ever be 60. Or 70. And still working.

But, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, “Old age is the most unexpected of all things that happen to us.” Winter comes for us all, my friend. Treat people the way you hope to be treated when you get there.

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