Maybe it’s not more pervasive, but only more obvious.
Gender. Race. Class. Companies – especially in the tech field – spend a lot of time talking about the importance of creating ways to close the gap with diversity and inclusion programs. They’re searching for ways to attract a broad mix of people who will intermingle and cross-pollinate thinking and take innovation to the next level.
There’s one characteristic that continues to run under everyone’s diversity radar. Nobody’s talking about what everybody in tech knows is the biggest digital elephant in the living room. Age.
It doesn’t exist if you don’t report it
Perhaps one of the reasons why ageism doesn’t get pushed out into the spotlight the way sex or racial discrimination does is because those who are impacted by age discrimination usually don’t want to talk about it.
Ageism is extremely difficult to prove. After all, how old is “old”? And did someone get the pink slip because of their age, or was it – as the company stated – due to a budget cut? There’s no squeaky wheel to get oiled. As a result, tech Meccas like Silicon Valley are a scary place to be for those over 40, and no place to be for those over 50.
The irony is that those affected by ageism also know that practically everything about the modern company is all about growth, education, and improvement. It’s about career development and broadening skillsets. All of this is in service to younger workers on the way up – not mature workers on the way, eventually, out.
Okay, so there’s an obvious bias at work, and it wasn’t created by the Millennials. At least we can move toward agreement that ageism might actually be perpetuated by overly focusing on developing younger workers and ignoring older ones. Why? Because they’re fine and need no help?
How to pull ageism into diversity and inclusion programs
Start with how your organization approaches career development. The rungs of the career ladder keep going all the way up. The lower ones might focus on skill development. The higher ones are perfect places to help skill broadening. Innovation is ignited by changes in perspective.
Turn mentoring programs upside-down. They’re optimal tools for professional development, and we encourage younger workers to pair up with mature, highly skilled senior employees. If there’s a problem or disconnect, it’s that these highly skilled senior employees might need to learn how to mentor.
Broaden opportunities to socialize beyond the current trendy stuff. You’ve got worse things to worry about if your organization’s social events revolve around alcohol. You’ve also got some thinking to do if it revolves around activities that emphasize physical prowess. Inclusiveness means that all of your employees look forward to socializing. Hint: Go back to the idea bucket if any part of it has to do with competitiveness.
Get rid of “equal” and go for “fair.” Parental leave? Flexible hours to pick up children after school? Consider whether the ‘we treat everyone equally’ benefits actually treat all employees that way. Your older employees may not have to worry childcare. They’ll be thinking about eldercare.
Ageism isn’t necessarily an attitude toward older workers by younger generations – although that type of discrimination certainly exists both in the tech field and elsewhere. It’s sparked, inadvertently, by our need to focus and develop young workers. We’ve tilted that attention too far.
And, while we try self-policing ourselves by going public with facts and figures about solving ethnic and gender inequalities, we remain strangely silent about ageism. We don’t even track it. Hiring or firing based on age is illegal. That seems to have no bearing on prevention.
It’s easy to do something about ageism. Organizations simply have to keep in mind that focus on a section of the age spectrum is a dangerous approach. It’ll only take a few years for everyone it benefits to outgrow the attention.