Generational diversity: 4 myths about ageism at work

5 minute read

Posted by Chris Platts on 16 November 2017

Removing all types of discrimination is a modern-day imperative for all HR teams. Moral reasons combined with the unarguable business benefits of increasing workplace diversity are important, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence that people are routinely disadvantaged because of the colour of their skin, socio-economic background, sexuality or gender. Yet whilst you can’t move for articles on sexism and racism at work, generational diversity gets very little coverage. And unlike sexism and racism, which feel like uncomfortable subjects to discuss at work, ageism seems, remarkably, acceptable.

What is generational diversity?

You wouldn’t dream of saying this candidate is ‘too female” or “too dark-skinned”, but in many companies, there is no apparent shame in privately agreeing to reject a candidate for being “too old”. It’s ubiquitous and it’s time we addressed it. Like any form of discrimination, using a protected characteristic to determine someone’s suitability for a job or a promotion is illegal. The main issue with ageism is that it limits generational diversity. The benefits you get when you have a range of ages represented across different parts of an organisation.

Different generations are reported to have different workplace preferences Image source

Myth 1: Age quotas reveal this isn’t a problem

Diversity is becoming increasingly driven by quotas. Yes, the lack of women in leadership positions of large companies is a major problem, and yes, ethnic minorities are shamefully disadvantaged when companies recruit, but when diversity is discussed solely in quota-related terms some issues get lost. The over 50s are well represented in senior leadership positions, so quota analysis of leadership representation would suggest that age discrimination isn’t really a thing.

No hiring discrimination is acceptable, but when it comes to hiring, age often plays a bigger role in decision-making than gender or ethnicity. My complaint is not that ageism doesn’t get the same publicity as other forms of discrimination, it’s that it seems to be OK. It’s conscious, deliberate, pre-meditated bias whereas most other forms of discrimination are either unconscious or at least kept hush-hush.

Myth 2: Older people are less dynamic

Age approximations are often used as a filter to reject candidates. It’s not difficult to work out someone’s age by a proxy-measure of when they started work or graduated from University. Do employers and their application sifting tools look at your LinkedIn profile and CV to try and work out your age? Overwhelmingly, yes.

Older candidates going for junior positions are often perceived to be less “dynamic” than their younger counterparts. Rather than exploring the story behind why the candidate wants to take on a role at a junior level, many companies often make up their own story that older candidates aren’t “high potential” enough and are rarely selected.

Frustratingly the best option it seems for candidates is to remove the timeline narrative from their CV. At least this might prompt a conversation rather than a “computer says no” automated response.

Myth 3: Younger people are less reliable

Of course, ageism isn’t only prevalent against older employees. Younger workers often get stigma around reliability or competence. It can be especially difficult for older people to be managed by younger counterparts, under the false assumption that age should be rewarded with responsibility. This is another barrier to generational diversity as it leads to younger demographics being under-represented in senior leadership roles.

Myth 4: Recruiters are the main barrier

When I was a recruiter I’d often get ‘off the record’ mentions of age when being briefed. Euphemisms such as “ we need someone up and coming” and “dynamic” were often used. Often companies would say things like, “the line manager is only 28 years old so we need someone who ‘fits in’ with him…” I always knew what they meant, of course. They wanted someone young.

In their defense, recruiters are only partly to blame. A good recruiter should challenge back with questions like “Why is that important exactly?” or “What evidence do you have to support your theory that younger recruits will perform better in this role?”.

Recruiters that challenge unfairness in this way earn respect. The recruiter who doesn’t challenge, but puts forward an older candidate regardless probably won’t get asked to help source candidates for the role again. Challenging a line manager on what they want and why they want it can be a risk. It may be fairer, but fairness is not a measure of success in a cut-throat, sales-driven environment.

Generational diversity is an asset

Ultimately, age is just a number, it shouldn’t matter, but we are socially conditioned to believe that it does. Despite its ugliness, I believe we shouldn’t simply vilify and shame companies who express ageism when hiring, we should convince them they’re wrong. We should seed stories of when hiring older or younger candidates have delivered unexpected results, innovations, and triumphs.

“There is no substitute for having been there and got it under your fingernails” – AA Gill

There must be some serious hard work undertaken to change the mindset and attitudes around employment prospects for older jobseekers in particular. Once the benefits of diversity are driven by economic as well as moral judgment, changes will occur.


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