Discrimination’s Dirtiest Word—AGEISM

A look at one-half of the double dose of discrimination women face with gender and ageism.

Ageism is a human issue. Ageism is a family issue. Ageism is a financial issue. Ageism is a political issue. Ageism is your issue. Ageism is our issue.

Mark Twain wrote “life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.” The ancient Greek poet Homer called old age “loathsome,” and William Shakespeare called it “hideous winter.” Each scholar wrote their descriptions of old age while in their twilight years, leaving a legacy of loathing for aging. Over thousands of years we’ve learned to see old age as a disease, something to be avoided even though we know it’s inevitable. Which brings us back to today and the most insidious discrimination of our time—ageism.

Diversity and inclusion cover race, ability, religion, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation and, it seems, as an after-thought, age. Age is the one “ism” we all have in common regardless of our color or gender. Our aversion to age didn’t start in the 1960s with ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’ and it hasn’t ended with the Baby Boomer generation’s scramble for the fountain of youth. Gerontologist Robert N. Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, said ageism reflects a deep-seated uneasiness on the part of the young and middle aged.

Tens of thousands of workers say that even with the right qualifications for a job, they are repeatedly turned away because they are over 50, or even 40, and considered too old.

A recent “New York Times” article by Patricia Cohen stated, “Tens of thousands of workers say that even with the right qualifications for a job, they are repeatedly turned away because they are over 50, or even 40, and considered too old.”

The 2019 Hiscox Ageism in the Workplace Study™ surveyed 400 U.S. full-time employees over the age of 40. The study found that 51 years old is the age at which workers believe they are most likely to experience workplace age discrimination. It also confirmed that in addition to gender bias women face in business, older women may face greater age bias than men.

David Neumark, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine oversaw in research that showed it is toughest for women, who suffer more age discrimination than men starting in their 40s. “The evidence of age discrimination against women kind of pops out in every study,” according to Mr. Neumark.

Age discrimination in employment is clearly a women’s issue. In 2018, Lynda Gratton, coauthor of “The 100-Year Life: Living and Work in an Age of Longevity,” wrote ageism is “far worse” for women than sexism. Gratton’s findings seem to mirror those of Mr. Neumark when she said, “Ageism at work begins at 40 for women and 45 for men. At that point, the employer no longer considers the worker for promotion or training.”

The #MeToo movement has seen great strides for women’s rights against harassment in the workplace but has served to overshadow the most pressing issue for older women in the workplace—ageism.

Patricia Barnes, an attorney, former judge and recognized authority on age discrimination in employment, wrote in “Forbes,” “Research shows that women are the primary victims of age discrimination in hiring, which means that women are driven out of the workplace earlier than men and have a much more difficult time finding a way back.”

Barnes goes on to remark that organizationally age discrimination in employment for older women is rarely championed by women’s organizations. She mentions that neither the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) nor the National Organization for Women (NOW) list age discrimination in employment as an important women’s issue on their websites.

That’s not to say that social and political women’s organizations don’t list age as one of the discriminatory factors that they work toward erasing, they just don’t see it as an integral part of the larger picture. Even though it is a larger issue than harassment in the workplace, ageism against women doesn’t make headlines.

Without advocacy from women and national organizations, this issue will only become worse. By 2024, workers 55 and older will represent 25 percent of the nation’s workforce, with the fastest annual growth rates among those aged 65 and up. Cohen’s “New York Times” article states, “Workers over 50—about 54 million Americans—are now facing much more precarious financial circumstances, a legacy of the recession.” A 2016 study by the National Institute on Retirement Security found that women are 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older, while women between the ages of 75 to 79 are three times more likely than men to be living in poverty.”

Combating ageism isn’t a losing battle however, accepting its existence and making it a priority are essential steps forward. We must all speak up, speak out and take action to change our own hidden ageism and, in turn, change the workplace “youth” cultures we’ve created. Women are the most greatly affected, therefore, women must be the strongest advocates for all.