Ageism in the Workplace: Laws and Resources for Employees

Ageism in the workplace is a cruel fate many of us suffer from. Learn what laws and resources you can put to best use in order to fight age discrimination at work

Anyone hitting forty in today’s work scenario is like hitting the wall– or use by date! You are no longer a correct fit in the work culture.

Changing technology and a dismal job and economic scenario have forced many companies to tighten their budgetary belt. One of the steps taken is job cuts to make the company leaner meaner. With machine learning, AI, and apps taking over a myriad of jobs many job profiles have become redundant.

It is the mid-segment executives that were handling the finance, accounting, sales, and administrative jobs that are finding themselves left out in the cold with applications software taking over their careers. This segment is mostly middles aged and above, and companies are looking at this section as their pay scales now can no longer be justified.

A Cruel Reality: Ageism in the Workplace

People in their mid-40s and later, who have hit the peak of their working career are suddenly faced with a very empty near future.

A crucial point missed by the over-eager human resources is that these middle-aged people are rearing to take the company to the next level. They have passed the ‘learning process” and are ready to put everything into practice.

Co-workers who have hit the mid-40s have had their career stalled. If the decision is based on performance or non-delivery of said work, one can accept the fact. Still, most times, the decision is based on the grey hair, and the belief that anyone over 50 is not capable of doing the task or “overqualified” is how they kindly put it.

A colleague hitting 40, a star performer for most of his working life, was suddenly persona non grata. Why? Because he was upsetting the average age of the company, which was 28. It was subtle harassment at its best.

The reporter has been witness to workplaces that are glaring lessons in “how not to run a workplace.” The reason–people at the helm lack experience or are still finding their feet as workers, let alone leaders, as simple as that.

Experience and age give you perspective and patience, two things that the young lack in heaps. It is here that an older pair of shoulders comes in handy.

So what is the case made out against aging? The older generation is slower, not technologically savvy, and cannot think like the young.

ageism in the workplace

We may consider ageism at work as minor, a report from the EEOC revealed that age discrimination has a one-fifth share of all discrimination cases received by the commission in 2016.

There is no denying the freshness of ideas that the young bring to the table, but most times, they lack the knowledge to translate that idea into a working one. A significant lacuna is the inability to see the larger picture or missing the forest for the trees. So much time is lost in the details that the actual work is lost somewhere in all the planning.

A US study by AARP reveals that the fastest-growing segment of the American workforce is employees aged 65 and older. The average age of an American worker is 42 years. A 2019 “State of Workforce” study reveals that more than 30 percent of people have experienced some form of ageism in the workplace before reaching 45.

People in their mid-40s and later, who have hit the peak of their working career, are suddenly faced with a very empty near future.

Ageism in the Workplace

A balanced team made up of a diverse group, including people of different age groups, always makes for a better team. The Robert De Nero and Anne Hathaway movie ‘The Intern’ deals with the vagaries of running a startup with all the incumbent problems discussed above. In the movie, an internship program for the retired brings in De Nero as the voice of reason, experience, and observance.

According to Peter Cappelli, Wharton professor and co-author of Managing the Older Worker. “I thought the picture might be more mixed, but it isn’t. The juxtaposition between the superior performance of older workers and the discrimination against them in the workplace just really makes no sense.”

Companies list themselves as believing in fair employment practices, including diversity in their workforce, but this covers racism and sexism; very rarely does ageism at work figure into the equation.

The US Department of Labor covers the laws on ageism in the workplace

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination based on age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces the ADEA.

The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 covers discrimination on the basis of age in programs funded by the Federal government. Some age distinctions are allowed that meet the Acts requirements. The Age Discrimination Act is enforced by the Civil Rights Center.

Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA) prohibits discrimination against applicants, employees, and participants in WIA Title I -financially assisted programs and activities on the ground of age. WIA prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, political affiliation or belief, and for beneficiaries only, citizenship or participation in a WIA Title I-financially assisted program or activity. Section 188 of WIA is enforced by the Civil Rights Center.

According to the Human Rights Commission, under the Victorian Equal Opportunity Law

A person has a right to be appointed to a position if they are the best person for the job, regardless of their background and personal characteristics.

Discrimination based on age cannot be applied at any stage of work: During recruitment, at work, or in dismissal.

Age discrimination in employment, according to the Human Rights Commission can include

  • advertising for someone to join a ‘dynamic, young team.’
  • not interviewing someone because they are too young or too old to ‘fit in’ with other staff
  • not employing younger workers because it’s assumed that they’ll quickly move on to another job
  • not employing mature workers because it’s assumed that they’ll soon retire
  • not providing training opportunities for young or mature workers because ‘it’s not worth it’
  • making choices around redundancy, or forcing someone to retire, because of their age.

The commission also lists out the positive duty of an employer, which means to create an environment of equal opportunity, to be aware of any discriminatory practices, and to provide a forum for redressal.

Complaints made directly to the Human Rights Commission are resolved through a process called conciliation.

Priyansha Mistry
Priyansha Mistry
Currently editor at The HR Digest Magazine. She helps HR professionals identify issues with their talent management and employment law. | Priyansha tweets at @PriyanshaMistry

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