When Experience Becomes a Barrier: Ageism at Work

Photo shows employees looking at a computer/Getty

Photo shows employees looking at a computer/Getty

Ageism, or discrimination against an individual based on their age, is a common barrier many older individuals face in the workplace. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate this discrimination.

Photo shows employees looking at a computer/Getty Images

As the median age in the U.S. continues to rise, so has the number of older individuals in the workplace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2030, the amount of adults 65 and over in the workforce is expected to grow 96.5%.

With this growth comes increased opportunity for ageism—prejudice or discrimination due to a person’s age. In a 2021 poll conducted by AARP, 78% of U.S. employees 50 or older said they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination at work. This figure represents the highest recorded since the organization first asked this question in 2003.

This discrimination against older workers likely increases in competitive fields like the life sciences, where there is a large concentration of younger candidates applying for the same roles. In BioSpace’s 2022 Multigenerational Workplace report, 47% of respondents were under 34, compared to 22% two years prior.

To combat ageism in the recruitment process, some older candidates have begun making changes to their resumes and cover letters to avoid disclosing their age.

Anyone searching the internet for advice on how to do so will be met with myriad options, from including only 15 years of experience on their resumes to omitting any and all dates that aren’t required.

Stephan Baldwin, founder and hiring manager of Assisted Living, a senior health and wellness company, told BioSpace the worst mistake an older applicant can make is to include their age on their application.

“The truth is, you can never tell which side of the ageism coin a manager may lie on,” Baldwin said. “Some may favor senior applicants because they feel they’d be more experienced or can connect better with specific patients. Others favor younger applicants who may be more receptive to learning new techniques and health innovations.”

Moreover, ageism doesn’t stop once a candidate is hired, and it can be difficult for older employees to ask for accommodations for fear of repercussions or judgment from their employer.

The Gender Gap

Terry Weber, CEO of Biote, a hormone optimization company, told BioSpace that she has seen the consequences of ageism firsthand. Weber, who said she feels she is at the prime of her career at 70 years old, said age-related challenges are often exacerbated for older women, particularly those experiencing menopause symptoms.

She said these symptoms often emerge when women are entering into executive leadership positions with more responsibility. This additional pressure is coupled with symptoms like anxiety, fatigue and brain fog, all while they are expected to make critical business decisions.

Through Biote, Weber commissioned a Women in the Workplace survey to determine how menopause symptoms affected working women ages 50 through 65 in the U.S. The survey found that 34% of respondents felt that people experiencing workplace challenges due to menopause would be supported, though 87% of respondents had not spoken to an employer or manager at work about their menopause symptoms.

As a CEO in the life sciences, Weber said she often hears directly from patients whose work lives had been negatively affected by their symptoms. Many of these patients told her they did not feel comfortable asking for accommodations due to “feelings of shame and fear of discrimination or being seen as weak and making excuses.”

“Women have historically tried to fit into a workplace built for men rather than changing the environment to one that allows for female success,” Weber said. “Women should not be afraid or ashamed of asking for consideration from their employers. It is time to talk openly about menopause, to have supportive conversations and to support women during this time.”

What Employers Can Do

Of course, ageism in the workplace is not exclusive to those who experience menopause. And though there are steps employees can take to mitigate these challenges, employers can take proactive measures to prevent them from happening at all.

Preventing any type of discrimination in the hiring process often begins at the source. As BioSpace previously reported, training recruiters and hiring managers to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives can aid in hiring a diverse team.

Employers looking for ways to aid the employees already on their teams may be able to take a more direct approach, Weber said.

“Employers have the opportunity to lessen the burden of these challenges for their employees by listening and making some simple additions to employee guidelines.”

These additions could include extra time off or the option for remote work.

Working against ageism can benefit everyone, Weber said, even younger employees, as they may need accommodations as they grow their families or provide care for their parents.

And though age-related discrimination is still prevalent, she said there is hope.

“Fortunately, there’s a growing awareness that companies have a responsibility to accommodate the health needs of people during all phases of their lives,” Weber said. “Normalizing life stages and providing an inclusive and accommodating work environment will allow all employees to continue working as they navigate challenges.”