Persistent Ageism: 55 is the New 40

Or:  Will You Still Need Me… When I’m 64

Midlife was traditionally a time when people knew their jobs well and passed on what they knew to the next generations, a time when they paid off their mortgages and put more money toward retirement. For most people, this hinged on having a career at an established company by the age of 40 that they could keep until they decided to retire, whether earlier or later than 65.

Things have changed. For my Father, the average number of jobs he might hold between 18 and 65 was an average of Four (3 for him). For me, that average was supposed to be Nine, but I exceeded that number because I had to accept Contingency employment without benefits to keep working. The projected number of jobs someone who is now 18 will hold is at least 15 jobs.

The Times In Which Laws Against Ageism Were First Passed in the US

When my Father was his early 40s (in the 1970s), the extra challenges of sending me to college added fuel to his dissatisfaction with the route-sales job he had at a local snack food distributor. He worked long hours, averaging 60 hours per week, and his bring-home pay was only a bit more than what my Mother brought home as a 40-hour per week factory worker, and he had fewer benefits.

He wanted a job that paid better for all his time, skills, and dedication. The companies he applied to did not give him a simple “No”; they told him outright that at 42, he was too old for the specific job or too old to start any new career.

My Father was so demoralized by these pronouncements that even when a reputable insurance company offered him a job, he turned it down. He did not doubt that he could sell their insurance, but based on what others told him about his fitness to start a new career/job, he feared that he was too old to get through all the training and licensing he would need to do the job. These things defeated my Father, and he gave up his search.

Two Acts of Congress, one five years earlier and another two years later than my Father’s job search, added people 40 and up as a “protected class.” My Father did not know what was in the works, and employers ignored it, still openly discriminating against older workers, thinking they had good reasons, at least, until the later Act added teeth to the laws against Ageism.

The Law Changed, But Attitudes Have Not… much

Fifty years of progress has done little to change attitudes against older workers. Age bias is still so pervasive, so ubiquitous that managers and older workers themselves do not realize how these attitudes affect their decisions. While systemic discrimination plagues older workers with defeatism, younger managers see that defeatism as justification for their bad attitudes. These attitudes perpetuate the negative stereotypes and myopic prejudices about older workers, trapping them in low-paying jobs and preventing them from trying new or different career tracks. And the truly horrible thing about this is that most of these “problems” have an ever-decreasing basis in fact, and many never were true.

One positive change over the last few decades has been that people between 40 and 55 are now considered to be “not too old yet.” It is people over 55 who now bear the brunt of Ageism. They quickly learn that even when they get extra training or go back to college and get that degree, they still cannot find work even when they are overqualified and willing to take a lower rate of pay. The number of rejections they must endure to find one full-employment job is often many times what it is for workers just 15 years younger. And far too often, they must resort to lower-paying multiple Part-time, Temporary, or Contract (contingent) employment to be able to work at all.

What is Ageism?

Ageism is defined as prejudice, discrimination, or stereotyping based on a person’s age. It is one of the two last acceptable Prejudices in our society. Ageism is an attitude that expresses itself as a thought or feeling about another person (or themselves) that says, “Too old” or “Too young.”

Up to this point, it is all an internal process within an individual, which falls within the realm of each person’s right to think and believe as they wish. However, when Ageism manifests in an official capacity with biased actions, behaviors, and language, for or against an individual based on age, it is no longer just a private matter.

When this bias affects the workplace or how healthcare is delivered, it is Institutional Ageism. When people believe mischaracterizations and stereotypes about young people, it is called Reverse Ageism, as when someone says something about “those millennials!!” The most damaging Ageism is Internalized Ageism when older (or young) individuals start believing mischaracterizations and stereotypes about themselves because of their age.

Be aware that a workplace can and often has a “youth-oriented” culture biased against older workers. But, it can also have a “traditional” culture that encourages prejudices against young workers.

Even Pope Francis, who has condemned prejudice in so many other areas of life, fell into the pervasive bias of Ageism when he referred to Europe as “a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant.” In an age when grandmothers may still be in their 30s and may stay vibrant into their 90s, such a statement is very prejudicial indeed.

Stereotypical Attitudes About Old People:

Slow, cannot move, think, or learn as fast as younger people.
This might be true for some, but even in those cases, superior experience and work ethics more than make up for it in the long term.

Resistant to change.
Most older workers know that businesses must grow and change, or they die. But even younger workers can be caught off guard by significant and frequent changes. This is why Change Management has become such a big part of business leadership training and a consulting specialty.

Stuck in the past and can become bitter at the world.
These usually signify a mental condition that results from trauma or a profound loss, and it can happen at ANY age. When these things are observed in older workers, it is often the result of repeated Ageist discrimination, not the cause.

Not fitting into a fast-paced, energetic company.
Remember, every Tornado has its Eye. You cannot have the fury of the storm winds without its calm, organized center. In other words, even when there is a fast-paced and energetic work environment, there is value in true diversity, including age diversity.  When managers or leaders believe that a particular employee is no longer a good fit, it is more often due to the managers’ and leadership’s bad attitudes than the older worker’s fault.

Tend to have more health issues, increases costs of employment.
These become less true as time goes on. Older workers have learned how to keep working despite the aches and pains that can increase as one ages. And in reality, work absences due to illness (real or feigned) are more frequent among younger workers than workers above 55. And absences are a plague (comparatively speaking) among young adult workers with small children at home.

Buzz Words Used in Employment Ads

Words to be aware of when a company describes its work environment, culture, or the kind of person or qualities the open position needs. These may indicate a bias toward younger applicants and may even be used to discourage older applicants. And they usually do when used in combination with each other or coupled with a superlative:

Action Oriented
Energetic, High Energy (or some variant like, Highly Energetic)
Lively or Busy
Multi-Task  (like, “Excellent capacity for Multi-Tasking”)
Required:  Ability to lift 50 pounds (seen in a job ad for an Office Manager)
Optimizing Success
Work Hard, Play Hard (work environment)

One Job Ad I ran across stated, “We get sh!t done… responsibly.“ They substituted the “i” with an exclamation point, but it was clearly put there to appeal to young adults and put off older adults. But I applied for the job anyway as I was well and professionally qualified for the open position. I researched the company and found that their President, the person who started the company, was in his mid-40s and boasted that he had created a dynamic and energetic organization. The company’s culture seemed so tailor-made for young professionals that they even had something called “Beer Fridays.” The interview went so well, and the interviewer so positive that I believed they would offer me the job. Still, a few days later, I received a rejection email that could only be due to my age and their obvious pride in their “youth-oriented culture.”

What Can We Do About It?

First, we must look inside ourselves and be aware that we may have internalized the negative attitudes about being old and deal with that first. We may be inadvertently perpetuating those negative attitudes. 
Note:  Do yourself a favor and watch Ashton Applewhite’s Ted Talk on ending Ageism.

We must be aware of but not overly sensitive to the forms and tactics of Ageism. It is so insidious that a manager or interviewer may not be aware of their company’s biases, or even their own.

Gently ask questions “for more information” in areas where you have detected possible age bias. Because the law forbids an employer from openly admitting Ageism, as in the past, we cannot be sure if an action is from a lack of awareness or an actual bias without more information.

Speak up against age bias whenever you can. Others may see your bravery and speak up as well. If an interviewer or the company they represent is obviously biased and if you believe you have already lost the job, use the remainder of the interview as a teaching moment on Ageism.

The Advantages of Having Older Workers:

  • Have a better Work Ethic, more dependable, reliable, and loyal
  • Are less likely to take your training and experience to a competitor
  • Have more experience to draw on, mitigating most of the learning and speed issues faced by some older workers
  • Have learned to work through their problems and around their limitations.

The fact is that we all change as we get older, some things diminish, and others get better. But when all things are considered, older workers bring Greater Value to the workplace than younger workers. Any company that rejects older workers fails to diversify its workforce fully and misses a crucial component of growth and future stability.

Advice to Management and HR Professionals

  • You cannot claim to have a genuinely Diverse Workforce if you do not hire and retain workers 55+.
  • The law says that people 40 and above are a “protected class,” and you may think you have satisfied the law if you hire those 40-54 and find a reason to reject those 55+. You have not. It is still discrimination based on age. And the use of a few short-term contingency workers above 55 will not protect you and your company. Any shortcut you take based on age is morally wrong and illegal.
  • The most used word that communicates age bias is “energetic.” When your job ads read something like “seek an energetic professional,” you may as well have it say “young professional” or “over 55 need not apply.” The only people over 55 who will apply will fit the job description exactly and believe themselves energetic enough for the job. These are precisely the people who will cause your company the most legal problems if not hired.
  • “Reasonable Accommodation” applies to issues of age discrimination. If an older worker needs a reasonable amount of additional time to learn a new system or get up to speed, you must accommodate them, by law. And the reward for doing so is that you are much more likely to end up with a better worker overall than a younger worker who adapts more quickly.
  • Things to look for in 55+ workers:  Have they engaged in life-long learning? Have they taken extra training or gone back to college to update their skills or learn new ones? Have they shown flexibility by working contingency jobs or by taking on new or different tasks?
  • People above 55 are staying healthier longer, updating their skills, and delaying retirement in ever-increasing numbers. One of the fastest-growing segments of the workforce is workers between 55 and 70. As those numbers grow, it will become progressively harder to hide your company’s age bias.
  • Start changing your company’s youth-oriented culture and age biases now to avoid the legal battles and corporate ridicule that is sure to come later.

Longevity is a Hallmark of Human Progress

Ageism is, in reality, a negative belief about ourselves, the person we all once were, and the person we will all become if we live long enough.

Aging is not a “problem” or a “disease,” it is a natural process, a life-long condition that unites us all from every walk of life, from the cradle to the grave. Growth in life expectancy is a fundamental hallmark of human progress and achievement. And despite current problems affecting longevity, it is projected that there will be more than 2 Trillion people age 60 and older in the world by 2050. And the percentage of the US workforce 55 and older surpassed one quarter in 2019.

55 is the new 40, and the number of workers 55+ is growing. The wave is coming faster than you expect. Change to meet it or be drowned by it.


About the graphical reference to Carousel in the movie Logan’s Run: 30 is when people are supposed to move on to make room for the new babies being born. It is the ultimate “youth-oriented” culture. And all seems well until those near the age of 30 start to notice that no one is ever “Renewed” in Carousel. So, if you believe that older people at some arbitrary age should get out of the way so younger people can prosper, regardless of what that age might be, it is self-defeating. That arbitrary age is going to look more random and unfair the closer YOU get to it.

Other Sources for your Consideration:

Ageism Towards Older People | Motion Graphics

Ageism in the Knowledge Era | Jennifer Manuel

Let’s End Ageism | with Ashton Applewhite

The Roots and Consequences of Ageism in America

Older Employees and the US workforce

So who is ageist? | Mervyn Eastman (UK)

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