What is ‘ageism’ and how can we tackle it?

by Nic Hammarling, Head of Diversity, Pearn Kandola

What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when we talk about ‘discrimination’?

Race? Gender? Sexuality?

Of all forms of discrimination, ageism is probably one of the last that comes to mind. Despite that, one in three (37%) workers over 45 in the UK believes that there is age discrimination in their workplace.

What is ageism?

Put simply, ageism involves being stereotyped, discriminated against or having an assumption made about you that is based on your age.

The term ‘ageism’ was first used by Robert Butler in 1969 to describe the “process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old.”

Having a negative attitude towards the older adults – whether that be those in their 50s and 60s or beyond – in our society is a real problem, and one that is becoming even more of a concern as our population – and workforce – ages. In fact, over a third (36%) of people over 50 feel as though they’ve been disadvantaged at work because of their age.

But what many don’t consider is that ageism can be applied to the rest of the population, too. For young people, ageism has very similar effects to those experienced by the older population. They might be belittled or patronised, passed up for progression opportunities or paid poor wages in comparison with others. In fact, more than half of under 18s feel like they’re not taken seriously at work because of their age.

What does ageism in the workplace look like?

Age discrimination can happen at any time, from the very beginning of the hiring process and throughout your training to conversations surrounding retirement.

Thanks to the Equality Act 2010, age is one of the nine areas that are considered a ‘protected characteristic’, alongside qualities such as race, maternity and disability. This means that we’re all protected from unfair treatment and harassment based on age. Sadly though, that doesn’t mean ageism isn’t common in the workplace, and its effects can have a negative impact on both an individual employee and the business as a whole.


Making assumptions about a person’s capabilities, behaviour or potential based on the age on their CV is the first hurdle at which many business fall. For example, some might assume that an applicant over the age of 65 will be slow or unable to use technology. On the other hand, a recruiter might think that a younger applicant is lazy and likely to spend too much time on their mobile phone. This sometimes means that applicants can’t find a job at all. Those searching for work aged 50-64 are 33% more likely than under 50s to be unemployed for over two years.

Performance evaluations and opportunities for progression

Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, but stereotyping by way of ageism means that some managers may make links between an employee’s capabilities and their age. This often means that employees – particularly those of the older generation – aren’t offered the appropriate training to help them gain the necessary skills for their roles. Plus, evaluating someone’s performance based on age can often mean that employees are overlooked for pay rises and promotions.

Unfair treatment

Ageism can have a huge impact on the professional lives of those it affects, but it can also have an impact on their personal lives and confidence. Many victims of ageism experience what’s known as ageist language in the workplace, including the use of phrases like ‘over the hill’ or ‘kids’. Or, they might experience micro-incivilities, which are subtle behaviours suggesting that someone is not valued or welcome in a particular environment.

How to tackle ageism

As a leader, it is your responsibility to make sure that your entire team is aware of ageism, whether it be conscious or unconscious, and ensure that everyone in your department is treated equally. Making sure that your employees know the boundaries and what not to do is vital, so here are some actions that everyone in your team should take to combat workplace ageism:

Focus on experience rather than age

When thinking about the kind of people you want to recruit, focus on their qualifications and experience as opposed to their age. Unless it’s essential to a role, make sure you give all applicants an equal opportunity to prove their skills and knowledge before you discount them based on their age.

Don’t make any assumptions

The most effective way to tackle workplace ageism is to avoid making assumptions about your team members. Even if they’re a similar age, all of your employees will be at different stages in their lives. A 70-year-old team member might not be ready to leave work, for example, but their 60-year-old co-worker might be thinking about an early retirement.

Making assumptions doesn’t just apply to those wanting to retire, though. It’s also important when evaluating work performance. That’s because someone’s skills and capabilities aren’t a result of their age; they’re a result of proper training. So, try to disregard age when evaluating performance, and make sure you’re doing the most you can to create a level playing field for everyone.

Consider all staff for progression opportunities

Naturally, you might be more likely to consider younger staff for training and promotion opportunities.. But that doesn’t mean that older, more experienced candidates shouldn’t have access to the same opportunities to learn and develop. Make sure that you’re aware of everyone’s skills and what training they might like to be a part of, regardless of their age.

Don’t use ageist language

One of the simplest things that you and the rest of your team can do in the workplace is to be conscious of discriminatory or stereotypical language. Sometimes our language choices are unconscious. Perhaps you might refer to the young members of the team as ‘the kids’ or suggest that an older co-worker is having a ‘senior moment’ when they forget a deadline. Phrases like these might seem insignificant or like ‘banter’, but can actually have a huge impact on the person on the receiving end. So, try your best to not refer to employees with ageist language, and don’t be afraid to call others out when they do.

Open up lines of communication

Communication is key in every workplace. It’s vital that your team feels comfortable and valued, so make sure that everyone knows they can come to you if they have a problem. Talk openly about combatting age discrimination in the workplace, and make time to check in with those who might be affected.

Combatting all forms of workplace discrimination should be a top priority for any leader, whether it’s racism, sexism or ageism that is an issue. Your employees should feel valued at work, no matter how old they are. So, try your best to be an open book, make sure that your team are aware that you have a no-nonsense policy on ageism in the workplace, and treat all of your team equally.

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