The conversation on ageism is gaining momentum. More stats are being revealed, such as that ageism starts at 46 in the tech industry*, and more people are speaking up – Madonna recently declared she was ‘being punished for turning 60’.
Why has ageism been allowed to become, in the words of WHO, an ‘incredibly prevalent and insidious problem’? Because, explains anti-ageism author Ashton Applewhite, it is ‘the last acceptable prejudice.’
Consider for a moment: in hiring processes at work, is age diversity deemed as important as gender and ethnic diversity? And do we let ageist remarks slip in a way we now wouldn’t stand for with sexism?
But fighting ageism isn’t just calling out bias in others – it’s about recognising our own, and understanding how damaging they can be. So read on and if any of the below ring true (and be honest) it might be time for a rethink…
- A work commitment has come up that involves heading to back-to-back meetings over a three-day period, overseas. One of your team has to accompany you and you think it would be unfair to ask the mother of two small children, so instead you ask her colleague, who is younger and has fewer outside responsibilities.
While you may be trying to do a nice thing here – taking pressure off a busy working mother – you are still making assumptions about a person based on their life stage. Maybe the mother would relish the opportunity for a change of scenery? Maybe the younger colleague has pressing commitments outside of work that they’d rather not leave?
- You have risen the ranks by working hard, doing long hours and being loyal to your company. Millennial and Gen Z workers are not prepared to do the same
How people think about work is changing for a myriad of reasons, such as a greater appreciation of mental wellbeing and a desire for a ‘balanced’ life.
But there’s no reason to view this negatively. For example, flexible working hours is an expectation for many today, but rather than show a reluctance to fit with company protocols, this more likely demonstrates a knowledge that people can carry out their role just as effectively (if not more) while incorporating important outside commitments.
- You’re not looking forward to ageing because your physical health will deteriorate
Well don’t panic. According to World Health Organisation, age does not determine capacity, with some 80-year-olds as mentally and physically agile as some 30-year-olds.
What is damaging to your health, however, is harbouring negative attitudes towards ageing, which can destroy your sense of self, diminish your opportunities and segregate you from others. And if that wasn’t enough, researchers found that those who viewed ageing negatively lived – on average – 7.5 years less than those who didn’t.
- Your department needs to become more innovative, so you look at hiring a few younger people, to shake things up
It’s true that diversity leads to innovation, as a combination of perspectives avoids the trap of ‘group think’. But that’s not to say youth automatically equals innovation. In fact, research suggests that as we get older we increase our capacity for creativity, partly through a greater ability to empathise and therefore understand other people’s needs and perspectives. Or, as Steve Jobs put it: ‘The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.’ And he knew a thing or two about creativity…
- You’ve always wanted to learn Spanish and it would benefit your career if you did, but are put off by the knowledge that the older you get, the harder it is to learn
This is a topic that has garnered some debate and while it is generally agreed that it is easier to learn a new language when you’re young (under 18), the reasons for this have not been defined. Some suggest it’s because our memory systems develop in a way that makes it harder to learn grammar, while some linguists believe we have a learning mechanism that ‘switches off’ around puberty, when we’ve mastered our native language.
Either way, you may find it harder to learn a language (or other new skill) than when you were at school, but it’s not impossible and it’s certainly not because your brain is becoming sluggish with age. Which is good to know.
- It’s your colleague’s 50th birthday and over a glass of fizz you tell her you would never have guessed her age
So you can’t even compliment someone now without causing offence? Not exactly, but we all know that language is powerful, and ageing is definitely an area where the conversation needs to change. By telling someone they look good for their age, you give validation to the idea that to age is to look worse – something the beauty industry has been telling us for years. But with older models becoming ‘a thing’ (there were 27 over-50 models at London, Paris and Milan fashion weeks in spring 2018 – up from just five in 2016) maybe even that is about to change?
- You believe that as you age, everything from walking up the stairs to figuring out how to work the TV gets that little bit harder
Actually, certain things get easier with age. How many of us look back on our younger years and marvel about the things we used to worry about? With age comes a certain level of self-knowledge, and that keeps on growing, improving our social and emotional skills and ability to maintain stable social relationships. So networking should be a breeze.
- You can’t work out how to do something on your phone so head over to the youngest person in the office to ask for help
Don’t worry – it’s unlikely that the young colleague is offended for being asked a tech question. But what about the person next to you? Or the various people you overlooked? Age is not a precursor to understanding (or not) how tech works.
- There’s a job coming up in your company that you want to go for, but the person you’d be replacing is 15 years your senior, plus it would involve managing colleagues older than you, so you’re not sure it would be appropriate
We all know by now that longer working hours doesn’t necessarily equal greater productivity.In the same way, the longer you’ve worked at a company doesn’t automatically make you better at your job. By holding yourself back from a role for fear of being too young or too old, you’re falling prey to your own age bias.
- You’ve bought a new outfit for a work event, but while you loved it in the shop, now you’re worried it’s ‘too young’
The idea that we have to alter how we look as we age is pervasive and harmful. Why should our hairstyle, length of skirt or the kind of colours we wear change? What you wear is a reflection of you, and that’s important – don’t let it be defined by outdated ideas.