There’s no question that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected older workers. During the first six months of the pandemic, workers age 55 and older were 17% more likely to lose their jobs than younger employees. In fact, this is the first time in 50 years that older adults are experiencing higher unemployment than mid-career employees.
Older workers are also being rehired more slowly, with those in their 50s looking for jobs twice as long as younger job seekers. This is partly because tenured staff are more expensive to keep on the payroll, but it’s also the result of longstanding discrimination against older individuals. They’re typically seen as being set in their ways, lacking innovation and creativity, and unwilling to embrace new forms of technology. Because of this, 1 in 5 workers over age 40 and a quarter of people over age 60 have experienced age-related discrimination at work.
However, younger workers also face prejudice at work. In fact, recent research reveals that “reverse ageism” is worse now than ever before. The researchers found that today’s young adults are seen in a more negative light than their cohorts from previous generations, with study participants describing them as entitled, coddled, disrespectful, radical, and lazy. Another study even suggests that young adults are often more likely to report experiencing ageism at work than their middle-aged and older counterparts.
It’s also worth noting that while the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older, employees under age forty are not offered any protections. Some state and local laws protect younger workers, but the lack of widespread legal protection makes it that much more critical that employers take steps to ensure that all generations are treated equally in the workplace.
No matter which age group is at risk, the consequences of age discrimination in the workplace can be monumental. Not only are staff members more likely to suffer from lower morale, engagement, and well-being, but the business bottom line can also be affected. According to an AARP report on The Economic Impact of Age Discrimination, in 2018 bias against older workers cost the US economy an estimated $850 billion in GDP, 8.6 million jobs, and $545 billion in lost wages and salaries. Other research finds that companies with higher diversity (including age) have 19% points higher innovation revenues and 9% points higher EBIT margins.
Given the potentially enormous impact on business outcomes, employers would be well-advised to improve their policies and practices around age discrimination. Yet few are addressing this, and others may not be aware of the extent of the issue — both within their own companies, and within our broader society. Furthermore, it’s critical that companies examine how issues around ageism have evolved during the pandemic, and how age biases could shift as we transition to a hybrid work model.
Let’s examine these points and discuss solutions that employers should consider as they strive to create a post-COVID workplace that works for all staff members, regardless of their age.
How has the shift to remote work affected ageism?
In some ways, remote working reduced age discrimination in the workplace. With in-person interactions essentially eliminated, age became a much less obvious factor for current employees and job candidates alike. In fact, during the pandemic many companies conducted the entire hiring process virtually, removing at least some of the bias that can occur due to a candidate’s age and appearance.
At the same time, remote work has made it more difficult for younger employees to get ahead in workplaces where networking and social capital are key. Young staff members often need the community and mentoring opportunities that an office can provide, and new hires can benefit immensely from exposure to their company’s workplace culture and senior leaders.
Even with the challenges associated with a lack of facetime, you might assume that younger staff members would prefer to stay remote forever. You might also assume that older workers struggled with the transition to remote work more so than younger staff. However, the opposite is actually true. In a survey from last year, 7 out of 10 Baby Boomers reported difficulties working from home, but more than 9 out of 10 Millennials and Gen Z reported struggles.
That’s because while younger workers may be more proficient with adapting to new technologies, they’re more likely to struggle with feelings of isolation and stress. The youngest members of the workforce are also more likely to be working from small apartments or shared spaces where it could be difficult to focus, another factor influencing their feelings about remote work.
For these reasons, while just 12% of all employees want to go back to the office full-time, a whopping 40% of college students and recent graduates prefer fully in-person work. But most employees still want to work remotely at least part of the time, and 79% of employers will allow them to do so within the new hybrid model. However, this arrangement may present new challenges around age discrimination that employers should take note of if they want the hybrid workplace to be a success for their people and their business.
How will issues around ageism evolve in the hybrid workplace?
At first glance, it may appear that the hybrid model could offer the best of both worlds and put employees of all ages on a more even playing field. However, the reality is that many companies are already grappling with a growing divide between employees who prefer to work remotely and those who prefer to spend more time in the office. There’s a longstanding perception that remote staff don’t work as hard, and experts predict that this could easily lead to a two-tier system in the workplace.
While the pandemic helped eliminate some of the biases around remote work, the issue is certain to carry over into the hybrid workplace. And whether companies recognize it or not, there’s a clear link to age that may be setting some generations up for failure within the new hybrid model. That’s because managers, who are generally older but whose team members tend to be younger, are more likely to believe that facetime is important and that office workers are better employees.
Put simply, the result could be a workplace where getting ahead depends on how often you go into the office. And this might mean that Gen Z and older generations like Gen X and Baby Boomers — who tend to have fewer family obligations, and for other reasons may prefer to go into an office — could quickly become seen as more valuable assets in the hybrid workplace.
Meanwhile, their Millennial counterparts could find themselves left behind. Known as the “sandwich generation” because so many of them care for both children and parents, Millennials benefit greatly from the flexibility and work-life balance afforded by remote work arrangements. But choosing to work remotely could have a devastating impact on their treatment at work and their opportunities for advancement.
Addressing ageism in the post-COVID workplace
The hybrid model can take various approaches, from a fixed approach (where employees work set days in the office) to a fully flexible model where all staff members have complete control over their schedule. No matter the approach, it’s important that employers address age biases and discriminatory practices, as these issues can arise in all workplaces.
Depending on your company, it may make sense to avoid a hybrid model that allows some employees to be mostly remote while others spend most of their time in the office. You may also want to provide some structure around days when staff go into the office so that diverse groups of workers get to spend time together. One AARP study found that 68% of employers would purposefully design mixed-aged teams to leverage the advantages that both younger and older employees bring to the table.
Of course, when it comes to age-related discrimination, starting at the programmatic and policy level is paramount. Employers who don’t incorporate age into their diversity and inclusion programs will struggle to facilitate broader cultural change among their people, yet over half (53%) of business leaders said their companies do not include age in D&I policies. Other research from PwC paints an even more dire picture, finding that that while 64% of global companies have a D&I strategy, only 8% of those plans include age.
Hiring practices will also be key. While the median age in the U.S. workforce is 42, in sectors like the tech industry it’s closer to 31. Part of the problem is that it’s still extremely easy to determine an employee’s age based on their resume. To address this, some companies are adopting “blind hiring” practices and requesting that applicants not include information (like their graduation date) that would reveal their age. A recent survey found that 70% of employers favor taking steps to promote unbiased recruitment practices.
While the onus lies on employers to tackle discriminatory practices and cultural issues, workers also need to embrace the opportunity to ensure that their skillsets don’t become obsolete. Companies can (and should) support them in this endeavor; in fact, 74% want to provide training and lifelong learning opportunities for older employees. This will be especially critical as we transition to a hybrid workplace, which will require not only technological proficiency, but also the ability to seamlessly navigate between different work environments.
Getting hybrid right for workers of all ages
Remote work may have put employees on a more even playing field, but it also exposed new forms of age-related discrimination for young and old workers alike. However, the shift to hybrid could present new challenges for businesses and their people. It’s up to employers to build awareness around the issue at-hand and take steps to address age prejudice within their workplace. Those who don’t will struggle to succeed both after the pandemic and in the long-term, especially those who plan to adopt a hybrid approach.