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HR POLICIES & PRACTICES
Jan 17, 2012

Age discrimination in the workplace

Findings from U.K. study on attitudes towards age
    

By Brian Kreissl

A recent study conducted by the U.K. Department of Work and Pensions entitled Attitudes to age in Britain found age discrimination alive and well, at least in that country. Predictably, the study found negative attitudes related to age were strongest with respect to the youngest and the oldest members of the workforce.

For example, 15 per cent of respondents believed working for a 70 year-old manager would be “unacceptable,” compared with only five per cent who thought working for a 30-year-old boss would be a problem. Yet those under 25 were twice as likely as any age group to have suffered age discrimination within the past year.

On the other hand, the study found people in their 40s were perceived to have the highest status of all age groups. Having turned 40 last year, I can relate to a certain extent.

While I’m no longer thought of as being “still wet behind the ears,” few consider me to be “over the hill” either — except, perhaps, for starting out in a career as a professional athlete.

I still remember how tough it was to get into meaningful work back in the 1990s as a 20-something graduate. At the time it felt as if education, ability and hard work counted for nothing. All that seemed to matter was experience.

I remember thinking how great it would be to be about 35 years old. That seemed to be about the ideal age for finding meaningful employment.

Then a funny thing happened. When I actually turned 35, it started to feel like employers suddenly wanted everyone to be 25. With all the hand-wringing about Generation Y, it felt like organizations were bending over backwards trying to attract, retain and engage younger people.

As I’d written in a previous post, Xers like me were more than a little jealous of this. The experiences of Generation Y didn’t mirror what we experienced back when we were first starting out.

Difficulties in the job market

I suspect things have changed in the past couple of years. Like members of Generation X who came of age during the 1990s, today’s recent graduates have to contend with a poor job market. Consequently, I don’t see quite as many employers fawning over them now.

Therefore, while difficulties in the job market often seem like they’re based on age discrimination, demographic and economic factors can’t be ignored either.

In good times, it will probably always seem like employers are coddling new graduates to a certain extent. And in bad times, employers will normally focus their attention on those with demonstrated experience.

Young people end up taking jobs they’re overqualified for to make ends meet – or employers may take advantage of them to some extent by paying them less than what they’re worth. But I don’t think there’s generally a deliberate attempt to discriminate.

However, that’s not to say age discrimination doesn’t exist. Even people in my age group can start to feel some degree of age discrimination — but it’s often discrimination of a different kind than that faced by younger and older people.

Maximum earnings at age 40

For one thing, I believe there are certain expectations that people have their careers and their lives together by the time they’re in their early forties. If people aren’t at a certain level by the time they reach my age, the perception is they’ll never get there.

According to career advice blogger Penelope Trunk, who cites research on the subject, earning power generally tops out at around 40 years of age. While I tend to dispute that to some extent (especially in Canada, where I believe people’s careers tend to bloom at a later age than in the United States), and there will always be exceptions, that’s an astounding finding.

Some of this has to relate to age discrimination, since people’s abilities are perceived to decline into middle age and beyond, even though we’re now starting to understand more about aging. We’re also living longer lives and taking better care of our health.

Therefore, it’s pretty sad to think we might be denying people opportunities because they’re perceived to be over the hill.

I don’t feel old, and I’m still looking at enhancing my education. To a certain extent, I’m still wondering what I’m going to do when I grow up. How can it be I’ve already reached the pinnacle of my career?

Age discrimination makes no sense because most of us are going to get old some day. And we were all young at some point in our lives.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at
brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

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