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Age Isn't Just a Number: Ageism in the Workplace

Updated: Jul 4

An older person sits at a laptop. They are wearing a blue sweater and glasses and are writing in a notebook

We have all blurted out statements we would like to take back. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in 2007 that "young people are just smarter." Since he himself was only 23 at the time, perhaps maturity has led him to respect the value of experience.

Company managers in-house certainly do. In survey after survey, both employers and employees note salient attributes that both older and younger generations bring to their jobs. Each age group does appear to offer distinct advantages.


How old is old? The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects workers over 40, so that is a good number to use as a starting place. The law prohibits age-related discrimination in companies with at least 20 employees. It is worth noting that sometimes both the discriminator and their target are both over 40. Managers should watch out for issues in the areas of:

  • Hiring.

  • Firing.

  • Wages.

  • Training.

  • Benefits.

  • Promotions.

For example, in your firm, do the most interesting educational and learning opportunities seem to be allocated to younger workers? Are over-40s being passed over for challenging assignments? Are they being excluded or left out of certain meetings or company activities? Perhaps most egregiously, is the more senior brigade being forgotten when it comes time for raises and promotions? Even making distinctions in time off or vacation schedules can lead to grievances and bitterness if the middle-aged cohort senses that they are getting a shorter shrift because they have no young children at home.

Is older wiser?

Aside from taking care not to break the law, managers have multiple reasons to actively seek out older staff. Research and organizational studies indicate a general consensus as to the perceived benefits of employing more seasoned workers. These include:

  • Better relationship soft skills, such as for handling conflicts or navigating corporate politics.

  • Fewer requests for days off and less turnover than those with young families to support.

  • More sincere work ethic.

  • Serving as mentors for training the firm's next generation.

  • Appearing as an integral aspect of the brand and as a symbol of someone who has expertise and can provide personal service.

  • Ability to draw in business, considering older consumers have the most discretionary income to spend on many products.

  • More confidence to lead internal teams and projects.

  • Being self-starters and independent performers who need less management supervision.

  • Ability to provide a list of contacts for promoting the business' network.

  • Possessing old-school qualities such as patience and punctuality.

Young blood

Youth is not necessarily wasted on the young. Most employers, in addition to Zuckerberg, prize the technological skills of the so-called digital natives, born into an age of smartphones, devices, social media and computer literacy. At the same time, younger workers tend to be more optimistic, having not yet become jaded or burned out from the setbacks of career building. They are less risk averse, which can help promote workplace creativity and innovative paths to improvement.

A modern workplace relies on collaborative team building. Younger team members are more receptive to group cohesion and less likely to cling to their turf, protecting their hard-earned privileges. Especially as they represent a more diverse collection of backgrounds and education, they are more open to wider relationships and outside influences. That attitude includes cognitive diversity, such as differences in information processing and outlooks.

Last but not least, they may be willing to accept lower salaries than their more experienced counterparts as they work their own ways up the ladder.

These sets of characteristics, which appear to segregate youth and experience, can in fact find a happy medium. The promising revelation is that older and younger workers actively enjoy working together and learning from one another. In 2019, AARP conducted a poll among 1,000 adults. The results showed that 70% of respondents appreciated what they learned from older and younger colleagues in a multigenerational environment, feeling as though they were on a two-way street.

To learn more about ageism in the workplace, contact our Nuance Culture Academy .

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