Boomers are set in their ways and don’t understand new technology. Millennials are lazy and get more done on Instagram than at work.

Generational stereotyping is nothing new. Historically, each generation looks down on the generation that follows (or precedes them) and criticizes their habits and trends. But like most stereotypes, these blanket generalizations are not backed by research. Adding to the problem, generational labelling (how we think) can often show up as ageism in the workplace (how we act).

Ageism is the unfair treatment and discrimination against people based on their age — and it’s considered to be one of the last normalized prejudices in the world. Ageism can be directed at younger and older workers alike but since our society tends to glorify youth and vilify aging, age discrimination affects older workers* to a greater degree. (*Note that older workers are not a homogenous group. Some research shows older workers as being 40 years and older, while others indicate older workers as 50 or even 65 years and older.) [1]

Statistics on ageism in Canada:

  • 63% of seniors aged 66+ say they have been treated unfairly or differently due to their age.
  • 80% of Canadians agree with the statement, “Older adults 75 and older are seen as less important and are more often ignored than younger generations.”
  • 89% of Canadians associate aging with something negative like not being able to get around easily, losing independence or being alone. [2]

When ageism intersects with other forms of discrimination like sexism, the outcomes are even more troubling. Gendered ageism, a term that addresses the intersectionality of age and gender, can impact women over 40 years old nationwide, including at work:

  • In one study, women managers reported feeling pressure to adhere to societal beauty standards and maintain a young look.
  • Women over 50 now account for more than half of the long-term unemployed population. This is cited as a key reason why more women than men live below the poverty line in North America.
  • Studies have also shown that women over the age of 45 can begin to experience gendered ageism in many different areas of their career such as training, promotions, job assignments, and salary allocation. Due to these biases, reports find that older women are being forced out of the workforce through demotions, job losses and the inability to get rehired. [3]

In any case, workers that are victims of age discrimination tend to feel worthless and insignificant which contributes to deteriorating health outcomes. And with five generations active in the workforce, ageism and generational bias can create tension in the organization adversely affecting work culture and productivity.

So, how can HR help break generational bias and ageism in the workplace?

On a personal level, figure out what assumptions you’ve heard about each generational cohort. Write them down then assess your list.

HR professionals should do the same assessment exercise for their organizations. Do you have diversity amongst the generations in your workplace? Would both older and younger candidates, for example, feel comfortable and welcome during your interview processes? [4]

It seems that the stereotypes we have about different generational cohorts have more to do with developmental stages. For instance, people that are from 18-25 are in the emerging adulthood phase of their life. Despite it being a different year, Baby Boomers were once emerging adults too and likely had similar habits to people who fall under the 18-25 age group today.

The milestones we experience in life may also serve as a better indicator of employees’ work habits, needs and the benefits that would likely matter to them most. These milestones include marriage, having children, graduation, retirement – and the average age when people reach these milestones has changed significantly over the past few years and so may not always align with a particular generational label. [5] In fact, in a Pew’s survey, a lot of people didn’t identify the correct generation for themselves, even when they were given a list to choose from. [6]

In your DEI and anti-discrimination policies, clearly outline what age discrimination looks like in your workplace as well as the actions that should be taken if such behaviour occurs. HR should ensure all employees are aware of these measures. This is also an opportunity for HR to review existing policies around sick leave and incentives to ensure that they are inclusive.

Training, development and promotional opportunities should also be accessible to workers of all ages. But to challenge the belief that older workers aren’t interested in training, development or new technological tools, training events should ensure that teaching strategies that support adult learning are used such as active participation, modeling, practical case examples, and self-paced learning. [7]

Remember to include age bias in the training you give all employees on diversity, equity inclusion and accessibility too.

To break age bias, HR should pay attention to their job postings. Avoid using language like “mature” or referencing a specific number of years of experience. Also, don’t require a birth date or graduation date on job applications. Instead, focus on the competencies that are needed for success in that position. This is helpful for younger workers as well who are often perceived to be underqualified because of their age. [8]

During the interview process, inappropriate interview questions such as: asking a candidate their age, when they plan to start a family or hope to retire should not be asked.

Be sure to also reflect older workers, including those of intersecting identities (women, person with a disability etc.) throughout the recruitment process. For example, “recruiting advertisements could feature older workers at computers, using the company gym and so forth.” [9]

No matter the age, everyone has something to bring to the table. So, HR should facilitate intergenerational mentoring and networking.

HR and employers can also prioritize collaboration and create opportunities where employees can support and learn from one another across experiences, skills and ages. Studies show that being part of a mixed age group increases motivation for all involved. [10] In fact, another study shows that older workers feel energized when teaching the next generation, and younger workers feel greater engagement when they learn from older colleagues. [11]

Learn more about these timely issues in upcoming HRPA professional development courses such as Pay Equity Certificate and Diversity and Inclusion Certification Program.