Recently, the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation tripped up and stated out loud the ageist beliefs that many executives keep to themselves.
Mark Read, CEO of the $17 billion corporation WPP, was asked about the balance of TV and digital skills in his organization. His response: "We have a very broad range of skills, and if you look at our people - the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 - they don't hark back to the 1980s, luckily."
Read may as well have hung up a sign saying, "No one over 45 welcome here." And although he later apologized on Twitter, saying people with decades of experience are "extremely valuable" to the company, it was too late. Damage was done, and news of his remarks went viral in the advertising community. And some people in the industry were quick to point to the demographics of WPP's workforce, which includes low numbers of workers over age 60 - and that those figures have been going down.
What made Read's remarks so important was that he uttered them reflexively, without thinking. It showed implicit, unconscious bias.
COVID-19 heightens age discrimination
Ageism has long been a problem in workplaces, but it's of even greater concern now. COVID-19 has brought about a spike in this type of bias, a top U.N. expert has said. And some businesses are facing lawsuits that claim they're using the pandemic and the economic downturn as an excuse to lay off older workers.
Age discrimination was already at high levels in recent years. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted in 2018 that more than 60% of workers age 45 and older say they've seen or experienced this kind of discrimination, and among them 90% say it's somewhat or very common. Also, three out of four older workers say their age has been an obstacle to finding a job.
A big part of the problem is that negative beliefs about older workers are deeply ingrained in our culture. Overcoming this bias requires unlearning ideas and stereotypes that have been drilled into our minds through much of our lives.
[Related: What is Ageism in the Workplace & How to Fight It]
Images fuel 'everyday ageism'
Ageist messaging is all around us. In a recent survey, more than 80% of people between the ages of 50 and 80 said they experience "everyday ageism," such as assumptions about their ability to hear, see, understand, or accomplish tasks that they're perfectly capable of.
This problem stems largely from advertising and marketing - something I know well, since I've spent my career in the field. Marketing images are filled with ageist tropes, reinforcing the idea that older workers are less capable, inept with technology, and only interested in keeping things the way they were. An AARP study of online images found that people over 50 are underrepresented in general. When they are shown, they're more likely to be portrayed in a negative light than younger people are.
This continues in no small part due to age discrimination that is particularly acute in the advertising industry, where the age of employees skews particularly young. Even the most well meaning people who organize advertising and marketing campaigns think of older Americans the way they see their grandparents, rather than as colleagues and consumers. This is terrible for business, since people over 50 are the demographic with the most money to spend and are turned off by negative images in marketing.
Fixing all this begins with a reality check. Employers need to learn facts about older workers. Research proves that they're equally capable of learning new skills, including those that involve memory. "There's good news about the aging brain: having more and different experiences to draw on is an advantage," the World Bank notes. They're also not easily overwhelmed by technology. "Myth busted: Older workers are just as tech-savvy as younger ones, says new survey," TechRepublic reports.
[Related: How Bias Impacts the Workplace, and How You Can Reduce It]
Business leaders must listen to their workforce about this issue as well. Through open conversations and anonymous surveys, give your employees psychologically safe opportunities to present their experiences with age discrimination.
It requires vigilance. Just as we all must be allies for each other, working to weed out racism and sexism from the workplace, we must do the same for ageism.
[Related: 8 Ways to Self-Audit for Unconscious Bias as a Manager]
Hopefully, in time, we'll end backward ideas about the capacity of older generations to contribute to the workforce. As a result, our workplaces will flourish with a broader range of ideas and experiences, and there will be fewer lawsuits that can cost companies huge sums of money. (One study says businesses paid more than $800 million just to settle cases filed with the EEOC between 2010 and 2018. That does not include costs of litigation.)
And when executives are asked about the mix of skills in their organization, it won't even occur to them to consider age a central factor.
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Vaughan Emsley is co-founder of Flipside, an intergenerational marketing company.