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Working as you age requires double duty to combat ageism

by Amanda Lambert | Contributor
April 20, 2022

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A perfect storm has been brewing for some time. As the employment picture changes with each new political party or worldwide event, a constant theme in the U.S. is creating a problematic situation.

People are aging in the U.S. By 2019, people over the age of 65 represented 16% of the population, more than one in every seven people. By 2040, the number of people over 65 is expected to grow to 21.6%.

And people are living longer, which means they need to work for many more years in numerous cases to cover health care and other costs. Many older adults do work, want to work, and desire to get back into the workforce.

What is holding them back? Rampant ageism in employment.

You may be thinking to yourself that discrimination against someone in employment due to their age is illegal. And you are correct. You can't avoid ageism, but some techniques and strategies will require effort and ingenuity to keep a job or get a new one. We will show you how.

Why discrimination based on age continues

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states: “The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older. The law prohibits discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, benefits and any other term or condition of employment.” Unfortunately, only 3% of older workers have ever made a formal complaint of age discrimination. There are several reasons for this:

  • Ageism in our society is so ingrained at every level many employers don't even realize their inherent bias against hiring and retaining older employees.
  • Even if you win an age discrimination lawsuit against your employer, the most you will be awarded is twice your lost back pay plus attorney's fees.
  • The EEOC is understaffed.
  • Companies can sidestep responsibility by claiming layoffs were financially necessary even though they hit older workers harder. Or, in hiring practices, they deftly avoid any decisions based on age, instead claiming that younger applicants are a better fit.
  • Older people looking for work don't want to take the time and make an effort to fight perceived discrimination. And age discrimination is tough to prove. Older workers just want a job where they can use their skills and be appreciated for what they bring to any company.

How bad is ageism in the workforce?

In 2019 an AARP survey found that:

  • Nearly one in four workers age 45 and older have been subjected to negative comments about their age from supervisors or coworkers.
  • About three in five older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
  • About 76% of these older workers see age discrimination as a hurdle to finding a new job; another report found that more than half of these older workers are prematurely pushed out of long-term employment, and 90% never earn as much again.

These numbers are estimates, and it is impossible to know how many older adults lose job opportunities based on their age. Sophisticated algorithms weed out older online applicants, or in an interview, you could be dismissed because you look older.

What are the symptoms of ageism in employment?

You may be familiar with ageism in your current job or in looking for one. Internalized ageism can make it challenging even to notice when you are the victim of age discrimination. You should report any blatant age discrimination to the EEOC. Some common symptoms of ageism in the workplace:

  • Employers offer learning opportunities such as conferences, coursework or continuing education to younger employees - not older ones.
  • Older workers are overlooked or passed over for challenging or exciting assignments.
  • Older employees are left out of client meetings or company activities.
  • There is an inherent bias in affording older employees time to caretake for an older parent or other family commitments. In contrast, preference is given to younger employees who have young children.
  • An environment that tolerates disparaging comments and remarks about age, including joking about your age, retirement plans, slow typing speed or other age-related physical characteristics
  • Workers are overlooked for raises and promotions due to older age.
  • Older workers are passed up for jobs for which they are well qualified or overqualified.
  • Layoffs disproportionally affect older workers.

Older women and employment

You may have heard the saying that the dancer Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did but backward in high heels. That describes what women face in the employment environment - the double whammy - their gender and age. Federal law prohibits discrimination based on gender, just like it does age.

Complicating matters for women is the fact that they are the primary caregivers. Men are caregivers, too, but women bear the brunt of caregiving in the United States. According to the New York Times, the percentage of women in the workplace stalled 20 years ago, and taking care of older relatives plays a major role.

An older woman working with a smile on her face

The lack of paid leave and little nationwide support for caregivers means that many women have left employment or reduced it. Since women make less than men for the same work, this hampers their long-term financial stability. And many of these women have children at home as well.

All of the strategies we discuss in the next section apply to women as well, with these added suggestions:

  • Don't leave employment for caregiving without exploring alternatives. Factor in the cost of lost income and reduced Social Security if you reduce hours.
  • Compare the cost of hiring a private caregiver vs. leaving your job. Remember that getting back into the workforce as an older woman could be very challenging.
  • Make caregiving a family issue. Talk with your siblings about how you can divide the labor or cost of caregiving for a parent or grandparent.
  • If you have to devote some of your time to caregiving, talk with your employer about flexible hours or the possibility of remote work. Do everything you can to keep your job while attending to your other responsibilities.

Strategies for remaining viable in your job

You can't control everything, and as much as you want to “be yourself,” actively engaging with your job will help keep you excited and maintain your relevance. Try not to have an attitude that your employer should be happy to have you. The fact is, and as unfair as it might be, you have to fight to compete for the job you already have.

Fight internalized ageism

Internalized ageism is insidious and damaging to your self-esteem and confidence. Much of internalized ageism is the kind of self-talk that pervades your thinking and affects your actions. Recognize the role media plays in perpetuating ageism. Replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations about your abilities and skills.

Take care of yourself

Taking care of yourself has many benefits beyond portraying a positive impression in the workplace. You will look and feel more energetic. Women are accustomed to the expectation that they look sharp and professional on the job. Men generally get away with more casual attire, but as you age, staying fit and looking like the pro you are can positively affect others' perceptions of you and your work performance.

Embrace change and innovation

As an older employee, don't perpetuate stereotypes by resisting change. Dive in and learn new technology or be willing to pivot if that is what is required. Give your opinion and stay engaged in the company culture.

Be willing to defer to younger coworkers

Try not to get into turf battles or think you know more because you have seniority. Stay open to the ideas and communication styles of younger coworkers. Show that you are willing to engage and collaborate with your younger colleagues.

Continue to learn

Regardless of your job, continue to learn through online courses or reading. Learning keeps you stimulated, and you have something to contribute to the workplace.

Strategies for getting back into the workforce

Getting back into the workforce will take some effort and a lot of rejection unless you are lucky. Keep at it - looking for employment can be a full-time job, but we have some tips to make your search a success.

Freshen your resume

Freshen your resume by reviewing examples of resumes on Monstor.com, Canva, LinkedIn, Indeed and other employment sites. Eliminate outdated terms. Don't state your age and only highlight the last 10-15 years of employment. You can put your degrees without identifying the year you graduated. Emphasize hobbies, volunteer work and activities. Use vibrant and energized language to convey interest and excitement. Craft your resume for each specific job if you can.

Dive into social media

If you already have a social media presence, that's great, but check to make sure it is appropriate and up to date. An employer will undoubtedly review your sites.

If you don't have any social media accounts, now is the time to get started; at the very least, create a LinkedIn profile. You can also set parameters on LinkedIn for job searches. If you are interested in a specific industry, join a Facebook or LinkedIn group to network and get your name out there.

Do your homework and be flexible

If there is a specific company you are interested in, do your homework and find out everything you can about them. Tailor your resume and your interview responses to that particular company. Also, take a flexible approach to employment. You may not be able to land the job you want, but another opportunity could be viable and surprisingly satisfying.

Learn new technology

Few jobs don't entail a grasp of technology. Most job descriptions will outline the technology they expect you to have competence in. If you need to brush up, there are plenty of online courses on everything from Excel to Google Docs, Slack and Trello.

Prepare for the interview

Suppose you make it as far as an interview, that is great! Now you have to nail it. Remember that the human attention span is less than it was years ago. Keep your answers concise and clear.

Acquaint yourself with video conferencing platforms for the interview (consider lighting and your appearance). Don't overdress: You may be shocked to see that the person who interviews you is a 30 something woman or man casually dressed. Don't oversell your years of experience - it makes you seem old.

Address the elephant in the room - why you have not worked in a while. Stay positive and not apologetic. Focus on your future goals, not just what you have achieved in the past. Highlight your experience, commitment and passion for the job you are applying for.

Should you try to look younger?

Women in particular face this question more than men do. Opinions vary on whether you should color your hair or otherwise appear younger. Going to lengths to appear more youthful is a personal decision. Some people strongly feel that you do what you have to do, and others think this tactic perpetuates aging stereotypes.

Consider freelancing or becoming an entrepreneur

Starting your own business can be challenging, but you may be surprised to find out that people over the age of 55 own 50.9% of small businesses in the United States. According to Forbes, “With a wealth of knowledge gained over years of experience, older Americans are well-positioned to put that experience to work building businesses of their own making. And with the average American living well past the traditional retirement age of 65, many start businesses to extend careers or, in some cases, to try a path not taken earlier in life.”

And then there is consulting and freelancing. Think about whether your skillset and talents lend themselves to consulting and freelance work. More and more companies are willing to contract out work, and remote work is more popular than ever.

The keys to working as you age

Returning to the workforce or continuing to keep the job you have as you age requires a fresh perspective. Growing, learning, and personal and professional development will keep you relevant and enthusiastic. Remind yourself of your experience and skills while engaging in continuous professional improvement.

Alliance America can help

Alliance America is an insurance and financial services company dedicated to the art of personal financial planning. Our financial professionals can assist you in maximizing your retirement resources and achieving your future goals. We have access to an array of products and services, all focused on helping you enjoy the retirement lifestyle you want and deserve. You can request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation by calling (833) 219-6884 today.

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