Is ageism widespread in the workplace?

Ageism is the last of the -isms (racism, sexism) to get any attention, especially in the workplace. But ageism is rampant. Once workers hit 50 or 55, they start to worry about how their age is perceived and whether they will be passed over for a job or promotion.  And for good reason.

“We know age discrimination is widespread,” said Jacquelyn James, director of research at Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.  “Age discrimination lawsuits have been increasing over the last five years, and those are just the people who decide to take legal action.”

But they’re the just the tip of the iceberg.

Because age discrimination is hard to study, James and her team looked at age bias, the extent to which a person perceives there is a bias against older people in their workplace. They surveyed more than 4,000 retail workers (ranging in age from 18 to 94) in three regions of the U.S.

The researchers found that one-third of workers believe that older employees are less likely to be promoted, one-third do not believe it’s a problem, and one-third were unable to say.

The researchers then wanted to see how this bias effected the motivation of employees.  “We wondered: Does the perception of age bias in the workplace have an impact on employees’ motivation or sense of engagement in their jobs?” said James.

They found that employees of all ages who perceived an age bias were less engaged in their work than those who did not perceive such discrimination. Not surprisingly, the perception of age bias was more strongly related to lower engagement among older workers than younger workers. Perceptions of age bias seem to make employees less likely to go that extra mile, even those who believe such bias is warranted.

But when the researchers added in the fairness factor, the results changed. They looked at whether people thought this bias was justified, meaning that they believed that older people were less capable than younger workers, or if it was unjustified. Feeling that this bias was unjustified was strongly related to lower engagement among younger workers than older workers.

“I think younger workers are well schooled in fairness so anything that seems unfair to them raises a red flag and would reflect poorly on their organization,” said James.

Ageism has more gray areas than other -isms. As a society, we discriminate on the basis of age in a variety of ways. We make older people take driver’s tests more often, we give senior citizens discounts, we think it’s okay to send birthday cards joking about aging, or make comments about people going downhill as they get older.

“Older workers are living with this daily reminder as people see them as less valuable, and that’s painful to them and dampens their engagement,” said James. “We need to add age to our list of -isms we think about to be careful we’re not sanctioning it.”

Older people today are healthier and have more vitality than they did in the past, but our concept of age hasn’t evolved, James argued.

“We need to be thinking of age as another element of diversity, as we do with race and gender,” she said.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.