This can be a tough time to be an older worker.
Surrounded by younger colleagues who have keen appetites to move quickly up the career ladder, older workers often feel left out or—even worse—discarded. It doesn’t help that many of the fastest growing and most dynamic industries clearly skew towards younger employees.
Consider that in Silicon Valley, the average age of employees is 31, 10 years younger than the median age of all American workers. In the most demanding tech jobs—programmers—the gap is even larger.
According to a 2015 industry profile done by Stackoverflow, an online hub for more than seven million programmers around the world, the median age of respondents was just under 29 years old. The survey found that less than 9.5 percent of respondents were over 40, and only 1.9 percent were over 50.
Not surprisingly, as the median age in Silicon Valley drops, the number of lawsuits based on age discrimination is rising. In the fall of 2016, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing received 90 age-related complaints against a dozen of the top tech companies in Silicon Valley for a variety of reasons, including losing out on promotions, being denied jobs and the withholding of wage increases.
Although the trend has been tied to technology companies, it is not confined to that sector. Many different kinds of organizations in a wide array of sectors are dealing with the same scenario. That is putting many older workers who want to keep working in quite a pinch.
Many older workers are pushing back retirement plans because of uncertainty surrounding their retirement investments and the impact of the housing market collapse. But money is not the only motivation. Life expectancy continues to rise, and many older workers simply aren’t interested in retiring. They are engaged and—if the prevalence of lawsuits is any indication—willing to fight for their place in the workforce.
Staying and fighting has consequences, however. Older workers may have to learn to work directly under managers that are considerably younger and less experienced. They may have to combat negative bias about their mental acuity or their energy levels.
The fact is that age is not a barrier to work performance. There is no evidence showing that older workers are any less effective or energetic than their younger co-workers. However, many older workers could be better at positioning themselves to be hired, promoted and treated equitably in the workplace. Here are five ways to overcome ageism in the workplace:
- Be aware. Older workers cannot escape stereotypes, no matter how unfair they may be. It’s important to be aware that older workers will be seen as unfamiliar with current technology, strangers to change and innovation, and lacking energy and passion. Be aware of those perceptions, and try to avoid doing things that re-enforce them. Appearances are important. Try to adopt current fashion in an age-appropriate manner. Be sparing in the use of ‘Glory Days’ stories. Those stories remind people that you come from another era, where people had a different set of values and skills. Your previous experience is an asset, but it doesn’t have to be amplified at every opportunity.
- Embrace technology. Many older workers believe that it’s necessary to know exactly how technology works to be taken seriously in the modern digital office. Not true. Not every employee needs to know how to program, but everyone needs to know how to use technology to improve job performance. Develop a comfort level with all the technology tools at your disposal. And read all available sources of industry news including online publications and blogs so that you are fluent in current trends.
- Do what you do best. Many older works know how to be inclusive, how to negotiate, how to influence people, how to sell an idea. They have experience working in teams and often have acquired a results-driven mindset. These are not competencies from some bygone era; these are current best practices for business success. However, all that experience must be imparted to younger co-workers delicately. Adopt a coaching mentality, where you ask younger colleagues to identify problems they are facing and then—without just telling them how you solved the problem—help guide them to a solution. Don’t play the old timer that has always been there, done that.
- When seeking a job, a promotion or a raise, be strategic. When you are looking for a new opportunity, or a chance to move up, focus on job experiences that expose your flexibility, adaptability and success working and guiding teams. Highlight examples where you’ve been an agile learner, or where you’ve adapted to change, or how you contributed to business results, or how you used technology to create a specific outcome. When you tell stories, focus on more recent events and achievements; it’s not necessary to go back decades to demonstrate your wealth of experience.
- Don’t let your age become an issue; but if someone else makes it into one, then be prepared to speak up. It’s important to avoid making your age an issue. Even if you’re sensitive about it, try not to bring it up in the conversation, and certainly don’t be self-conscious or self-deprecating about your age. However, if you’re in a selection or promotion process, and you’re getting cues that age may be an issue, be prepared to deal with it. Make sure the people you’re talking to understand that you do not believe age is an issue. Divert the conversation back to your experience and how it is an asset, not a liability.
Every stage in life is a new experience and while you may have a lot of experience at doing a lot of things, remember that you aren’t experienced at being older. That’s a new experience and it’s going to take some time to develop the attitude and sensibilities necessary to continue achieving career goals in the later stages of your working life. Certainly well worth the time until the working world accepts age as simply another form of needed diversity.