Workplace bias, in the form of age discrimination, has been getting some attention lately — in places from Silicon Valley
to your local firehouse
. Cisco, for example, has come under fire for a move that looks suspiciously like letting go of older workers in favor of younger ones
. This isn’t exactly a new issue: last year this CEO
got rejected for a number of top jobs until he went bald instead of grey and Converse-d instead of loafered — and promptly got hired. And of course, in 2007, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (in)famously told the crowd at a startup event that “Young people are just smarter.” In tech and elsewhere, stereotypes abound against older workers.
Age discrimination is poised to become even more prominent over the next decade, too. That’s because over half the U.S. workforce, per BLS statistics from 2010, is 40 – 75 years old. The two biggest age segments in the workforce are 45 – 49 years old and 50 – 54 years old. And by 2022, the 55- to 75-year-old segment is projected to grow by a whopping 11 million workers, meaning that in just under 10 years that age bracket will make up 25% of the American workforce. (Statistics are cited in the study by Ng and Feldman noted below.) The number of older workers in the workforce is huge and growing. Are the common stereotypes about them justified by the evidence? No. As it turns out, the evidence is practically nonexistent.
Costanza, et al, found few statistically significant differences between the Traditional, Baby Boom, Generation X, and Millenial generations in terms of job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and intent to turn over. In fact, if anything, they found that older generations were slightly more satisfied with their jobs than younger generations, and somewhat less likely to leave their jobs, though these may be related to age or tenure more than generational cohort.
Ng and Feldman, meanwhile, noted in their meta-analysis that previous studies have confirmed negative age stereotypes were prevalent in hiring decisions. These stereotypes pegged older workers as:
- Less motivated
- Less willing to participate in training/career development
- More resistant and less willing to change
- Less trusting
- Less healthy
- More vulnerable to work-family imbalance
The only supporting evidence that the researchers found for any of these stereotypes was a weak correlation between age and career development motivation, and that older workers are less healthy in that they have higher cholesterol and blood pressure than younger workers. Even in this last case, the researchers found that the onset of serious blood pressure and cholesterol issues did not normally occur until people were past retirement age. Beyond these two minor issues, Ng and Feldman found no empirical evidence to support a dim view of older workers.
If these stereotypes aren’t true, why does this bias against older workers exist? The researchers don’t give concrete answers, though Ng and Feldman hypothesize that two factors could be to blame:
- “Representative error” means that we see attributes that we presume correlate with old age in people who aren’t representative of older workers in the workforce; then we apply those attributes unfairly to older workers.
- “Confirmation bias” means, essentially, that because we already have these stereotypes in our heads, we see the things that confirm them and ignore the things that don’t.
Whatever the cause of this bias, with so many older workers among our ranks, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by thinking dimly of them. To find the best workers for your open position — regardless of age — try a listing on Bright Hiring Solutions