A new report from the Australian Human Rights Commission says ageism is pervasive across all age groups. So what can HR do about it?
Many employers have been working hard in recent years to address prejudice and discrimination within their workforces, focusing particularly on sexism, homophobia and racism. But ageism – holding stereotypes about people based solely on their age – has gone largely undiscussed.
That lack of conversation prompted the Australian Human Rights Commission to conduct a major survey, the findings of which have recently been released in a report earlier this month, which shows that ageism is “the most accepted form of prejudice in Australia”.
“Ageism is arguably the least understood form of discriminatory prejudice, with evidence suggesting it is more pervasive and socially accepted than sexism or racism,” says Age Discrimination Commission Kay Patterson.
How prevalent is ageism?
The commission found that 90 per cent of people agree that ageism exists and 83 per cent think it’s a problem. What’s more, 63 per cent said they had experienced ageism themselves in the past five years.
The study incorporates responses from 2440 Australians, divided evenly amongst three age groups: young adults (18-39), middle-aged people (40-61) and older people (62+).
Interestingly, respondents of all ages said they had experienced or witnessed ageism.
The report explains:
- Young adults are most likely to experience ageism as being condescended to or ignored, particularly at work.
- Middle-aged people are most likely to experience ageism as being turned down for a job.
- Older people are more likely to experience ageism as being ‘helped’ without being asked.
And, as Patterson explains, some respondents admitted ageist attitudes towards their own cohorts.
“Some young adults told us: ‘All Millennials are hopeless. They don’t take responsibility. But I’m not like that.’ And some older people said: ‘Older people are tired and fed up with their jobs. But I’m not like that.’ That’s intragenerational ageism,” says Patterson.
Understanding the problem
Ageism can have an insidious effect on an organisation’s performance by side-lining good workers based on inaccurate assumptions, says Patterson.
“For older people, there’s the perception that they can do less by themselves and need to be helped constantly,” she explains.
That can lead employers to ‘under-work’ their older staff, meaning older workers can become disgruntled because they feel under-valued. At the other end of the spectrum, ageism can prevent younger workers from rising through the ranks, even if they are expertly qualified.
“There are some young people who legitimately could be leaders but are overlooked on the basis of age,” says Patterson. “Or they’re patronised.”
The effect on those young employees is much the same as on the older ones.
“I don’t think I’d be a happy worker if I was under-estimated. I wouldn’t be as productive. I might get up and leave the job entirely.”
How should HR address ageism?
Patterson stresses that “there’s no one join-the-dots formula for managing multi-generational teams.”
But she says there are a few areas HR should focus on.
“Firstly, it’s about teaching people to avoid attitudes and assumptions based on stereotypes,” she says. “That goes for staff at all levels.”
She recommends specific training for managers around ageism and unconscious bias.
Ensure you provide equal access to training, progression opportunities and mentoring, she adds. And consider tracking these initiatives by age cohorts to ensure equal access and so you can retrospectively identify any gaps or ways in which you might be disadvantaging a certain cohort (i.e. are younger workers receiving more opportunities to upskill in the digital space than their older counterparts?).
“Every Australian must do what they can to challenge ageist attitudes in themselves and others, so together we can reduce ageism for Australians of all ages. Age is not the problem. Ageism is.”– Age Discrimination Commission Kay Patterson
Secondly, in order to reduce tension amongst employees that might be caused by ageism, Patterson recommends discussing the issue confidentially with individual staff members from each age group.
“Find out why employees of certain ages grate on other employees,” she advises.
“There may be cultural and generational factors at play – for example, such as what time of day different cohorts prefer to be working. These issues can be resolved with intervention.”
For example, if older workers feel they’re missing out on opportunities, consult with them to find out where they’d like to see changes. Patterson shares an example from BMW in Germany.
“It looked at one of [its] factories and actually talked to some of the older workers about what they could do to increase their longevity at work. They were very simple things, like shifting them more often around various jobs because the repetitive sector was worse for them. They also wanted some mats to stand on, very simple things. It increased productivity enormously.”
Finally, Patterson says HR must actively combat unconscious ageism within its own ranks.
“Make sure you’re judging workers based on their specific strengths, skills and needs, not on their ages.
“It is incumbent on each of us to discuss these issues and do our bit to bring ageism into mainstream conversations in our workplaces, living rooms, and with our friends. Every Australian must do what they can to challenge ageist attitudes in themselves and others, so together we can reduce ageism for Australians of all ages. Age is not the problem. Ageism is.”
Interested in diving deeper into issues of ageism? Check out the results from AHRI’s ‘Employing older workers’ report, conducted in conjunction with the Australian Human Rights Commission, for some illuminating insights.