Rejecting Negative Stereotypes About Older Workers

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Until recently, a pervasive stereotype in the business world defined older employees as lacking the mental agility or physical stamina to meet the demands of a competitive work environment. Employers also viewed older workers as “out of step” with current trends, making it difficult for older workers to find jobs in industries that target younger consumers. Based on those stereotypes, employers often fired older employees on the theory that “fresh blood” would improve the workforce.

Congress attempted to end discrimination against older workers by enacting the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) in 1967. Subject to several exceptions, that law prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of age against workers who are older than 40. Forced retirement at a specified age is forbidden for most employees in most industries. 

The ADEA has never been a wholly effective deterrent to age discrimination in employment. Employers have consistently manufactured non-discriminatory excuses for firing older workers and pro-business judges have too often sided with employers rather than older employees. 

Fortunately, the business world may be setting aside stereotypes that hamper the ability of older workers to find and retain jobs. As the nation ages, so does its workforce. Employers may soon have difficulty finding younger workers to replace older workers. That reality may be driving businesses to reconsider the stereotype that younger employees outperform older ones.

Setting Aside Stereotypes

A loss of strength, bone density, or endurance is an inevitable consequence of aging. While physically demanding jobs may pose a challenge for older workers, the age at which physical abilities deteriorate varies widely. Individuals have some control over the age at which bodily changes create an insurmountable barrier to physical labor. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can mitigate the deterioration of physical abilities.

Research suggests that older people who internalize negative stereotypes of seniors as “frail” or “feeble” are more likely to perform poorly on physical tasks. On the other hand, seniors who reject negative stereotypes are better positioned to maintain their physical abilities.

It is less challenging for older workers to remain in a job that is not physically demanding. Cognitive deterioration as employees age is far from inevitable. The stereotype that older workers are less productive than younger workers is unsupported by research. A recent overview of relevant studies found that “there was no difference in productivity between older and younger workers.” While physical health issues may cause older workers to be absent from work more often than younger workers, absenteeism is offset by the superior work performance of older employees.

The Value of Older Employees

Continued employment is a necessity for many older workers. Until the pandemic altered average lifespans, life expectancy rose steadily for decades. Longer lives often wreak havoc with retirement plans. Many seniors want to avoid the risk of exhausting their retirement savings by remaining in the workforce.

While working beyond a typical retirement age can be economically beneficial for seniors, businesses are realizing that older workers are valuable to their companies. A consulting firm that offers talent acquisition services suggests that businesses are “reaching the age of no age limit.” The firm reports that “workers age 75 and up have quietly become the fastest-growing labor demographic.” Their numbers will nearly double in the next decade, while the percentage of workers who are younger than 25 will decline.

By the time workers are no longer able to handle the physical demands of a job, they have often developed a strong understanding of how the job should be performed. Transitioning older workers to positions as supervisors or managers takes advantage of their accumulated experience.

Creating an Age Diverse Workplace

Employees of all ages are subject to disabling or long-term illnesses. Discriminating against older workers is no guarantee that employees will not take leaves or quit for medical reasons. Businesses that base employment decisions on the assumption that an older worker will be less capable of working than a younger worker are violating the ADEA. As importantly, they are depriving their company of the experience, leadership, and skills that older employees bring to the workforce. Wise employers judge all their employees as individuals, not as stereotypes.

Making the workplace friendly to older workers may require the same kind of inclusion training that employers use to avoid sexual and racial harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, training programs are often used as a shield against litigation rather than a serious attempt to change corporate cultures. Diversity programs fail when upper management fails to recognize the importance of a diverse workplace.

Businesses that embrace age diversity have less employee turnover while benefitting from a “stable and dynamic workplace.” As the workforce continues to age, corporate leaders may eventually realize that favoring younger employees is bad for their business.

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