“Age is just a number.”
But, come on now.
Yes, age is indeed just a number. But depending on those numbers (20? 34? 75?) there exist a ton of expectations, intentions, assumptions and restrictions. Is this less true in the workplace? Or more true? How much of a thing is one’s age at work?
I ran a survey asking nearly 1,500 working Americans their thoughts on that, and a little bit more. But first, getting older. Why can’t I relax about it, go with the flow, accept and embrace? After a certain point, why does aging have to feel so intimidating?
How old are you is important. It means something. We have an entire legal system built around how old you are. You can get behind the wheel at 16 years old. The majority of U.S states say that 18-year-olds are adults. Just turned 21? Congrats, you can have a legal drink (finally).
For those of us who are in our 30s or 40s, it’s not totally uncommon to look back on the 20-something years and say to oneself—yep, skin was tighter, hair thicker, step a little bouncier but dang, am I glad to not be 25 anymore. How come?
Well, ideally your career and financial outlook is more stable than it was when you were 25. There’s a clearer path. There are tangible, grown-up goals to be achieved. You’re supporting yourself, maybe others. Your boss asks for your opinion and better yet, listens to it. Or maybe you are the boss. Your coworkers take you seriously. You are seen. Your presence is known. It’s respected.
Now…how comfortable do you feel in saying this aloud:
No matter how old I am, I will have a seat at the table at work for as long as I choose. No matter how old I am, I can expect to receive the same level of respect from my manager, my employees and colleagues.
These are just a few things that come to my mind regarding age in the workplace. Now for that sobering – ism: ageism. It’s a thing. Especially at work, and there’s national data to prove that this is indeed, a thing.
As older people in the workplace (ages 60 and above) continue to increase, this issue has become even more relevant. The Pew Research Center shared the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data—by 2022, 32% of workers ages 65-74 will still be working compared to 20% of the same age bracket in 2002.
And age discrimination is happening more frequently. AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) released 2013 survey results where they asked 1,500 older workers on whether or not they saw ageism or bias towards their age at work as being “commonplace”. 92% of respondents said Yes.
We’ll take a look at 2016 survey results but first, let’s get personal. Promise to keep it brief. I’m a woman. I work in Silicon Valley. I changed my career track pretty dramatically to work here—from a card-carrying librarian (yes, there are still librarians) to marketing and specifically, social media marketing—a field pretty much invented by and meant for those in the 21 and under set.
It’s also accurate to report that I fall outside of the age norm at my workplace. I feel lucky to work where I do. And although I’m writing about age, I am uncomfortable sharing my own here. Even stating that I am not a millennial nor am I a straight-up Gen X-er—it makes me squirm. I don’t have the Why 100% figured out. I understand it’s irrational.
My hesitancy in being transparent about how old I am speaks to more than just my own confidence issues. Where I work also plays a role in my feelings of self-consciousness. And I do feel as if I’m being melodramatic because in reality, I don’t know what it’s like to be a true victim of ageism in the workplace, unlike tens of thousands of others. Not yet anyway.
So what about that woman who’s been working steadily in her industry for 25 years? What about the guy who’s fresh out of college? Are they any more or less aware of these things than I am?
Asking coworkers how old they are—let alone asking them if they’ve ever felt they’ve been treated differently at work because of their age—aren’t the easiest topics to broach face-to-face and expect to receive honest answers.
What do the numbers say?
In my anonymous survey, I compared people who described themselves as younger than their coworkers to those who identified themselves as older than their coworkers.
What’d I learn?
Over half (53%) who described themselves as “much younger” than their coworkers said they’d been personally discriminated against because of their age. Compared however to 40% of those “much older” than their coworkers who said they’d experienced the same kind of treatment
The surprise factor? It’s not just older workers who feel the burn of ageism. That being said, younger workers reported feeling slightly less likely to have personally witnessed age discrimination (67%). Less surprisingly, the majority of older workers said Yes to both.
Overwhelmingly, the majority of younger people said they’re more likely to lie about their age outside of work. Not terribly surprising to anyone with a curious teenager at home. And over 60% of older workers admitted to lying about their age outside of work.
It’s established that ageism is a thing. But what about reverse-ageism? According to the data, few people in any age group were aware of the term (85%). However when asked if they’d ever felt pressure to participate in activities they wouldn’t normally do because of their age, it was the younger workers who expressed feeling this rather than their older counterparts.
In terms of perception, most workers believe that older people are probably more qualified for their jobs but most don’t believe younger workers are necessarily more productive.
So at the end of the day, what does all this mean? People of all ages feel a lot like I do right now. They’re aware of their age differences at work, a little insecure about it, not super comfortable with it, have been dishonest about their age to others. Why they feel this way are perhaps for different reasons than my own, or maybe for quite similar reasons.
Like I said, I’m not 100% clear as to my Why. Not yet anyway.
Get the full set of survey results here.