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March 21, 2022

Ageism is one of the most unfair paradoxes in the labor market: People put in decades of hard work and then find themselves penalized for having done so.

And the problem is only worsening: Nearly 80% of older workers say they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, according to the most recent survey by AARP. That was the highest share since the group began asking the question in 2003.

Even as the economy bounces back from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, older workers are having a challenging time getting re-hired. The percentage of jobseekers in February above the age of 55 who were “long-term unemployed,” meaning they’d been looking for a job for 27 weeks or more, was more than 36%, compared to around 23% among those between the ages of 16 and 54. (Around a quarter of the workforce is older than 55.)

“I get these heart-rending emails from people who are incredibly well-qualified, who send out hundreds and hundreds of emails and don’t even get an answer,” said Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. “They are so demoralized.”

Unsurprisingly, the discrimination has psychological consequences. Around 6.3 million cases of depression globally are thought to be attributed to ageism, according to the World Health Organization.

Anyone feeling that they’re paying a price for their age should know they’re not alone, experts say. Here are some strategies to combat the problem.

You may have your own frustration and sadness about getting older; that’s understandable, Applewhite said: “We live in a culture that barrages us with negative messages about aging.” And, as a result, she said, “older people are often the most ageist of all.”

The powerful impact of this perception
Research shows that older people exposed to subliminal negative age-stereotypes are more likely to perform poorly on cognitive and physical tasks, said Dr. Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez, manager of the global campaign to combat ageism at The World Health Organization.

On the flip side, de la Fuente-Núñez said, studies find that individuals with more positive self-perceptions of ageing experienced better functional health and greater longevity. “Age stereotypes that we internalize can generate expectations that act as self-fulfilling prophecies,” de la Fuente-Núñez said.

It’s not hard to imagine how these dynamics could hurt you professionally. For example, if you believe that older people are less competent with technology, when you get up there in age you may assume that you can’t learn and master certain digital skills and therefore not even attempt to.

Fear about Aging is due to lack of information

To start to unwind some of this pessimism and its consequences, Applewhite recommends being skeptical of generalizations and getting more educated on the facts.

“The more we know about aging, the less fearful we become,” she said. “Our anxieties are way out of proportion to the reality.” (She said older people are often surprised to learn, for instance, that just 2.5% of Americans over the age of 65 live in nursing homes.)

And while some deterioration in memory and processing speed is common as we climb up the years, comprehension, reading, and vocabulary are some of our abilities that remain stable — or even get better — with time, research shows.

“We talk about aging as if it’s entirely a loss, but there are gains,” Applewhite said. “Find me an older person who actually wants to go back to their youth.”

Focus on how you’re still growing
Alison Chasteen,
a professor at the University of Toronto who studies prejudice, has found in her research that some older adults fared better than others during the pandemic. What was their secret? They focused on areas where they could still grow.

“We are referring to feeling that one is on a trajectory of improvement,” Chasteen said.

Fortunately, there are more ways than ever for older workers to continue advancing, said John Tarnoff, a career transition coach.

He pointed to the seemingly endless amount of free content on YouTube, as well as the available classes on platforms like Coursera, Udemy, Skillshare and GetSetUp.io, a learning community targeted at people over the age of 50.