Ageism is Getting Old

A series of cascading health, social, economic and political crises has gripped the nation and the world. After nearly two years we are beginning to glimpse a potential recovery on the horizon. However, we cannot fully recover without solving our human capital problems. Even with the proliferation of technology in today’s workplace, for work to continue, we still need its most precious resource: people. As the past couple of years demonstrate, business and society cannot function without the health, well-being and engagement of people. People can’t simply be a part of the recovery; they must be central to the recovery.

Many talent issues plaguing U.S. businesses predate the pandemic. For half a century, the birth rate has been below replacement level. People aren’t having enough children to replenish the workforce long-term. In 2019, more baby boomers retired than in any year since 2011, when the oldest boomer turned 65. The pandemic is exacerbating workforce issues already in play.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there were 11 million job openings at the end of October, an increase of 61% from the previous October and a record high since reporting began in 2000. The CEOs I speak with regularly say financial capital is readily available to spur growth, but lament they are limited by the lack of human capital. Our economy is based on human capital. The recovery of our businesses and workplaces must be human-centered. Since this past spring, workers have been exiting their jobs at a record pace, leaving employers to recruit from a shrinking pool of talent.

The abundance of available cash, coupled with an ultra-competitive talent market, appears to be driving wage inflation. Sixty percent of organizations are offering higher wages than they were just a year ago. While this may be true for higher wage jobs, many lower wage positions are not experiencing the same surge in wage inflation. Organizations who cannot afford to offer higher wages are looking to cut cost or sacrifice performance to maintain operations.

Age Myths and Misperceptions

Addressing systemic workplace biases, like ageism, can help resolve the talent deficit. Ageism in the workplace is nothing new. In the recruiting process, older workers often are labeled as “overqualified”—a proxy for “too old.” Many hiring managers carry several misconceptions about older workers. They often falsely assume an older worker is unable or unwilling to learn a new technology or skill. And many managers show resistance to supervising workers who are old enough to be their parents or grandparents.

We need to combat older worker stereotypes with salient data.

Older workers also are presumed to be more expensive to employ due to salary history and experience levels. For organizations to continue growing, they must root out age-related bias in their culture, policies and practices. This calls for abandoning long-held harmful stereotypes about older workers and combating stereotypes with salient data. Instead of generalizing, ask older workers who they are.

I see the largest biases in how people generally view career paths. People expect all workers to remain in one industry and rise through the ranks from entry-level to management and eventually senior leadership. But this perspective is wholly unrealistic. Careers do not progress in a linear fashion. Not every worker is destined for management. In reality, an employee’s career moves are more nuanced and complex.

As workers develop and gain perspective on their work preferences, their careers may shift laterally, jump across industries, evolve into new fields, or even revert to previously held positions. Instead of assuming what it is older candidates are looking for in their careers, hiring managers and HR practitioners should ask them. Though groups of people may exhibit shared tendencies, it is vital for employers to assess each worker’s traits, skills, experiences and desires.

Multigenerational Workforce

We are at a unique time in history when five generations simultaneously participate in the workforce. Sustaining business growth will require contributions from each of them. To get there, organizations must understand how a multigenerational workforce can best integrate into their workplace. Members of each generation or age cohort tend to have in common certain values and perceptions of work that arise from shared experiences of their formative years. Each group brings expectations regarding authority and hierarchy, work ethic, work behaviors and life issues; at times causing conflict or stress in multigenerational workplaces.

Older workers are going to continue making up a significant segment of the U.S. workforce for the foreseeable future. According to the BLS, the workforce growth rates of those ages 55 and older are projected to outpace all other age groups over this decade. It is past time for organizations to fully embrace older workers as a segment of diversity and source of quality talent. It starts with fostering a multigenerational culture that looks beyond stereotypes to recognize ability, regardless of age or any other dimension of diversity.

Do older workers feel valued or like they belong?

With older workers destined to be part of the workforce, we need to ask some critical questions. Are organizations engaging, developing, and getting the best out of older workers? Do they feel valued or like they belong? How these questions are answered will reveal much about our progress.

While it is common for organizations to develop training initiatives around cultural diversity, too few have addressed age as a diversity dimension. Employers should leverage their inclusion, equity and diversity (IED) programs and efforts to not only embrace the traits of each generation but also provide training and education to enable them to coexist productively. Such programs can work to embed IED into the organizational culture and drive acceptance and understanding of workers on an individual level. Each worker, regardless of age, has a unique field of experience.

Career Development

Now more than ever, extended career paths are becoming increasingly complex. Organizations need strategies to cultivate workers’ growth and development 20, 30 and even 40 years into their careers. For now, that means assisting a generation of workers raised in the industrial and information eras of work to transition into what’s next for the world of work. Employers should examine how older workers’ career paths can align with their mission.

Many companies are pairing younger and older workers together so that they can mentor one another. An older worker may have experience and industry knowledge to share while a younger worker may be able to aid an older worker in using a new technology. Two-way mentoring aids retention, improves workplace experience, and develops employee collaboration.

Organizations need to confront our deeply ingrained biases if we are to access the wide array of available talent. We need workplaces flexible enough to accommodate a truly diverse workforce. We must abandon our stereotypes about what people are capable of and start empowering people to reach their potential. The fate of our recovery is directly tied to the performance of the people we employ. We can only move forward together; we can only move forward with a human-centered recovery.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, in Alexandria, Va. SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, creates better workplaces where employers and employees thrive together. With 300,000+ HR and business executive members in 165 countries, SHRM impacts the lives of more than 115 million workers and families globally. Learn more at and on Twitter @SHRM.