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Diversity and Inclusion

Understanding workplace stereotypes: “too old”

Agesim, the “last acceptable prejudice”, isn’t just a simple brain blip like some cognitive biases. But like gender and race, age is an important dimension of identity in diversity. It comes from how we frame people as either useful or obsolete and how we carve up society into generations.

Dimensions of identity in diversity

☝️ We naturally hold all sorts of ideas about different generations – their charm, their misgivings, their abilities, and inabilities. If we all open our eyes, we’d see that ageism doesn’t just act against older people after retirement age. Ageism begins much earlier, especially in the world of work.

  • 🎟 When it comes to promotions, potential is the ticket. Older employees can be seen as less likely to grow so can be left behind in their career progression.
  • 👴🏼 Older employees can be made to feel like they are a burden especially if they are patronized, left out or have their obligations taken away and handed to someone younger.
  • 👩🏻‍💻 Learning and development might focus on catering to the needs of younger employees and ignore the unique needs of older age groups.
  • 🤷🏻‍♂️ You are less likely to be invested in, be this as a new hire or given backing or funding.

📈 First Round Capital 2018 State of Startups survey shockingly shows, for instance, that in the technology industry, age discrimination against founders seeking investment can begin at 36-40! 👇

First Round Capital 2018 State of Startups Survey: Distribution of responses from US tech founders:

🤔 So, which stereotypes lead to these effects? An academic meta-analysis categorized 7,000 publications about ageism against the old and identified the following five types of stereotypes.

🧐 What is it?: A common belief that older workers are less motivated, have lower ability and are less productive.

💥 How to challenge it?: anytime you hear someone in the workplace refer to someone as slow because of their age, call it out and ask for objective evidence. Say,

“We can do better than that stereotype. What about how good they are at _____?”

“When have there been real problems with delivery?”

🧐 What is it?: Older employees are stubborn, harder to train, less adaptable and less flexible which is why they are regarded as a lower return on investment for training and interesting opportunities – such as projects involving uncertainty – are given to younger, “on-the-ball” employees.

💥 How to challenge it?: Say,

“If we don’t give people a chance and the means to change then of course their resistance will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

🏆 Champion it: Ask a worker who is older or more experienced than you about the changes they’ve seen in workplace solutions and technology. You might be awe-inspired at the things they’ve seen and adapted to!

🧐 What is it?: The notion that you can’t teach an “old” worker new tricks or, at least, learning is less effective for them. The insidious part about this one is that it might even sound well-meaning: “Poor Eve will get overwhelmed if we try to teach her to use Google Drive as we do. Let’s just let her continue with her old-fashioned methods of sharing her work.”

💥 How to challenge it?: Trainability and age don’t have much to do with the capacity to learn. However, different types of training can get different results. So if there’s a learning problem, criticize the methods, not the learners.

For example, methods such as active participation, modeling, and self-paced learning may be more effective. Say,

“Why don’t we sit down with them and find out which piece of knowledge they are missing?”

“If I were Eve, I’d love to learn new things and be able to be at the top of my game – but if she doesn’t know about this yet, then we’re to blame for not highlighting it.”

🧐 What is it?: it seems factual that an older hiring candidate or employee means hiring closer to retirement age and therefore they will stay at the company for a shorter time.

💥 How to challenge it: A quick way to shut this stereotype down is by stating that older workers are actually less likely to quit.

But really, that’s not the point. To stop seeing older workers as short-term investments, we need to humanize them and discuss why their experience is an asset – not a liability.

🧐 What is it?: Older workers are seen as more likely to use benefits and to have or demand high salaries.

💥 How to challenge it?: Celebrate the experience and worth of older workers! When you hear about an older worker being passed over for a role based on their cost, mention all the things that you think older workers bring to the table and challenge your peers by saying,

“If they ask for more money or benefits, maybe they just know their worth and believe in just rewards. Who can’t get behind that?”

“Maybe we should let them show us what they can do.”

.     .     .

The bottom line?
Generational thinking can give rise to stereotypes but abandoning generational labels overnight isn’t going to solve the problem.

We have to chase the benefits of age diversity without making stereotypical assumptions that are damaging. This is difficult because the generational thinking that feeds everyday ageism comes naturally to us. So, how can we begin making a difference? Awareness, integration, and activism, as always, are key.

Understanding workplace stereotypes: “too old”

How are you creating an inclusive and equitable environment at your workplace? We’re are always keen to hear your stories! Drop your comments, feedback, or whatever else you’d like to share with us here.

💬 Speak your mind

Fiona Young (she/her)

Having previously led Learning and Development for 3,000 people at Europe’s leading venture builder, Blenheim Chalcot, Fiona knows a thing or two about how to build high performance culture. As Content Director at Hive Learning, Fiona pioneered the organisation's leading guided content programmes which are designed to turn learning into action. Most recently, Fiona led the inception, development and delivery of Inclusion Works by Hive Learning - the world’s first diversity and inclusion programme focused on turning unconscious bias into conscious action - created from over 1,000 leading sources.