By Jonathan Burton
Ageism is society’s last acceptable “ism” — but there’s cause for optimism.
Older Americans are beginning to rebel against a youth-obsessed culture. They want to be valued and accepted for who they are, embracing “elderhood” as the next chapter after adulthood, and extolling the wisdom and experience that comes with aches and wrinkles.
This Gray Revolution, like many other social movements before it, is being driven by workers. Across the U.S., older employees are prodding their organizations to promote age diversity with the same initiative and interest awarded to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. They are pushing for a place and a purpose within an organization that reflects and respects their skills and expertise — and the most innovative institutions, companies and CEOs will either lead, follow or get out of the way.
One clear sign of an age-appropriate organization is intergenerational cooperation — programs and teams where younger workers learn from elders and vice versa. Achieving this requires defiance of conventional stereotypes: CEOs, directors, managers and HR departments all must trash the false, ageist tropes that older workers are less reliable, less savvy and less flexible, or that they are more expensive and steal jobs from able-bodied youth. It means eliminating job descriptions that skirt age-discrimination laws with profiling language such as “digital native,” “cultural fit” or “five to seven years of experience.”
“It’s absurd that experience has become a liability,” says activist Ashton Applewhite, author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.”
Meaningful change is slow, but older people have time on their side. Americans are living and working longer, while younger generations tend to be multicultural and pluralistic in their worldview. Many young people also are eager to connect with experienced older mentors. There’s a good chance that future leaders among them will carry these progressive social values into positions of power.
For now, though, it’s still early days. It’s the rare company that includes age in its annual diversity report, for example. “We have a lot of work to do to reclaim the idea of elder wisdom and why we should be valuing what older people bring,” says Marci Alboher, a vice president at Encore.org, a nonprofit that facilitates cross-generational interaction. “We’re stuck in a mindset that people should be exiting the stage in their 50s and 60s. That is just the moment when they could be most valuable.”
Older workers are highly valuable. They bring judgment, balance and perspective to an organization. They tend to stick around longer than their job-hopping, ladder-climbing counterparts. Older employees typically aren’t angling for promotions and view younger co-workers not as threats but as mentoring opportunities. Moreover, research shows that when a company facilitates the exchange of ideas and initiatives across generations, its productivity, profitability and worker morale all improve.
“With the changing nature of the economy to a technology economy, so many things are being displaced,” says gerontologist Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. “The one thing that may be hardest to displace is wisdom.”
Not every older person is a Yoda wannabe, of course. Many of us go to extremes to deny that we are old or will be. Yet denial only weakens our power to combat ageism in others — and in ourselves. That’s one reason why intergenerational initiatives and alliances are so critical: Fostering cooperation between young and old allows knowledge and talent to shine regardless of age.
“To create a culture of cooperation and respect, you have to make sure that older workers have the opportunity to gain new skills and stay current,” says Martha Deevy, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center of Longevity at Stanford University. “Set up environments where the generations are able to share what they know.”
In this way, she adds, “Younger people see how the company is dealing with older people, and older workers are learning new skills, contributing, and able to mentor.”
Such forward-thinking breaks down ageist barriers, which divide not just the workplace but society itself — from the health care we receive to the entertainment and media we consume.
‘We’re all ageist’
After all, aging is the one thing we all share — as well as, for many, the fear of it. Marketers and advertising agencies (where the average age on a creative team is 28) seize on this anxiety with palliative platitudes: “You’re as young as you feel”; “60 is the new 40” and other cringe-worthy clichés aim to sell us potions with the promise that looking and feeling older only happens to other people.
“We’re all ageist,” adds Applewhite. “Prejudice is based on ‘othering.’ The ‘other’ is our older self. The solution is for people of all ages to acknowledge that they are getting older.”