A quick Google search reveals no shortage of articles about managing millennials in the workplace. However, with so much attention on encouraging and training younger employees, older employees are often left out of the conversation. To nurture a truly inclusive workplace, there needs to be greater awareness of how ageism negatively impacts an organization as a whole.
But there are plenty of ways for older employees to participate more in their organizations—and just as many ways for their younger peers to help foster a more inclusive environment.
A growing demographic
The number of senior citizens in the workforce is on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.5% of employees in the U.S. were aged 65 or over in May 2019—up from 17.7% in 2014.
There are many reasons for this increase, including longer life expectancies, the need for additional income, and just plain boredom. But this trend begs the question: how prepared are organizations to integrate —or reintegrate—older employees into their fold?
What is age diversity?
When it comes to workplace diversity, the conversation is often focused on gender, race, and sexual orientation. But it’s also critical to acknowledge the role ageism can play in stalling or isolating the trajectories of older employees at the office. An AARP survey reports that two-thirds of employees between the ages 45 and 74 have witnessed or experienced ageism in the workplace.
A big driver for ageism is the bias toward “digital natives”—younger people who have grown up using technology that previous generations did not have access to at such an early age. As a consequence, older employees, who may not expertly navigate social media platforms or new software, are left feeling less relevant at the office.
A focus on age diversity is the clear response to tackling workplace ageism. As the term implies, age diversity means including employees of all ages at the office. But it is not enough to just have a more diverse demographic; workplaces also need to establish an inclusive culture that values the expertise and contributions of older employees.
Viewing age as an asset
There are many benefits to having older employees:
- They come to work with ready expertise cultivated from longer work histories and more life experience.
- Like any other age group, they come to the table with a unique point of view. This can contribute to a more innovative and productive organizational culture.
- They are typically more loyal to the organizations they join and stay in their positions longer than their younger peers.
Creating an inclusive environment
To take advantage of these benefits, organizations must find ways to leverage and value their older employees. New programs and initiatives should “value wisdom as much as youth.” This can be achieved by:
- Being open to willing candidates who have long work histories and more experience than what certain jobs may demand.
- Requiring all members of a team to share what they are working on at meetings, so that everyone is given a platform to learn and collaborate from one another.
- Offering a mutual mentoring program that pairs an older employee with a younger one to encourage intergenerational collaboration.
- Having regular touchpoint conversations with older employees to make sure they’re able to capitalize on their strengths.
What can older employees do?
Ageism may not always be overt, so it's important to recognize and call out signs of ageism. If you're an older employee, don't be be afraid to:
- Tap into your network to find out about organizations that support and encourage older employees.
- Speak up at meetings and within your team. Share your knowledge, experience, and POV whenever relevant.
- Participate in office social events so that you can nurture stronger connections with co-workers.
- Ask for help when you need it, and be ready to offer help when you can.
Don't minimize situations in which you've identified ageism. Age bias can feel easy to write off, but it presents a major barrier to creating an inclusive, innovative, and productive work environment. If you have witnessed or experienced ageism, inform your manager or human resources department to determine next steps.
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Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.