Ageism in the workplace often takes sneaky, sly forms. Beyond the adversarial relationship cultivated between older and younger workers to keep them wary of each other, instead of working in solidarity, some workplaces actively push older adults out. Want to get rid of them. Want to cultivate a younger workforce. They use terms like ‘flexibility’ and ‘fresh knowledge’ to suggest that younger workers are more valuable, when in fact their reasons for wanting to get rid of their older workers have nothing to do with wanting to offer better products and services.
They have a lot more to do with money, and with social control. Older workers tend to make more, because that’s a consequence of seniority. If you’ve been working for a company for 30 years, you make more than a brand new employee who has just been brought in. You also might have a more generous benefits contract, because you have the benefit of the industry standard from 30 years ago. This makes older workers more expensive for companies to maintain. It’s entirely reasonable to pay a premium for older workers; people should make more with seniority, because with seniority comes experience and an intimate knowledge of a company.
Conversely, of course, setting starting wages absurdly low is not acceptable, nor is giving reduced benefits to new employees to cut costs. People just entering the workforce often struggle to make ends meet because they are viewed as cheap, and sometimes disposable, labour. Starting wages should be higher, should come with a full array of benefits, and wages should increase over time to reflect experience and commitment to the company. New workers shouldn’t have to work two jobs or struggle to get by. All workers should have access to fair, reasonable wages which provide a decent standard of living.
Older workers are also, by dint of their experience with the company, extremely knowledgeable. This would seem like a benefit, and a good reason to retain older workers, because they have vast banks of information to draw upon. They know what a company has tried in the past, what failed and what worked. They know the products and services of a company quite intimately, and are in a really unique position to improve them. They can support a company through feedback, involvement in development, and education of other employees who might need help getting familiar with the company.
This is the case whether you are a librarian or a software designer. Older workers are an incredibly valuable workplace asset because they have something that cannot be replaced with education and training. They can act as mentors, and they can also help companies avoid missteps, drawing upon their experiences. Some older workers have been with companies longer than owners, or supervisors.
They know their workplaces very intimately. And this knowledge is often discounted, discarded, and ignored. Older employees are treated as though they have nothing of value to add to discussions about policies, products, services, customer interactions. After all, they’re old, what could they know? The attitude is that older employees are hidebound or caught in the past, and thus will drag a company down.
And, of course, companies don’t want workers in positions of authority. Acting as though someone with a company has something to contribute and may in fact be in a better position than owners and supervisors to determine the best course of action endangers the power structure and the paradigm. This is not acceptable. Thus, older workers must be devalued, to keep them in submission, to force them to be quiet and sit down. Workers who dare to speak up may be punished by their employers, often in subtle ways that are difficult to pin down and point at. There’s nothing specific that you can say is evidence of discrimination, only shadows and vague inklings.
Older employees get stuck with the strange shifts. Are tasked with the jobs that people do not want, or aren’t given any tasks at all, because employers are well aware that boredom tends to make people unhappy with their jobs. They have skilled tasks taken away from them and given to younger workers because they are ‘faster’ or ‘will do it better’ or ‘need to learn,’ and are not invited to provide feedback and assistance, even if an employee is struggling. Casual bullying and hostile behaviour are tolerated and sometimes even quietly encouraged. The workplace becomes a narrow, unpleasant place, where every day is a reminder that you are not wanted, and that everyone is waiting for you to leave. Why won’t you leave, already?
If you approach a supervisor to address the situation, the response may be cold and unproductive. You may told that you’re making things up, that the company is just naturally restructuring, that everyone’s having to adjust their working habits. That harassment you experience, the sense of being quietly squeezed out of the social and cultural life of the workplace, is just hypersensitivity. Everyone loves you, really, you’re terrific. Stop fussing. Go sit in the corner.
Faced with these conditions, older employees have an uncomfortable decision ahead of them. They can quit, or they can stay, and try to stick it out. Some employees need to stay, because they cannot support themselves on their own, and they are well aware that it will be difficult to find a new job. They may not be financially prepared for retirement, whether they want to or not, and quitting a job when you are an older adult is effectively a forced retirement because you will not find alternate work. And some older employees also really like their work. They chose that industry, that job, with a reason, and they don’t want to be driven out by hostility.
But if they stay, every day is a long, slow grind. The enjoyment of the job fades away, replaced with a constant sense of being unwanted, undesired. The pressure mounts, and mounts, and mounts. You become known as the difficult employee, or you grit your teeth and bear it, hope that something will give, eventually. You get resentful and angry. Your knowledge, your skills, are being wasted, in the hopes that you will get the hint and leave so the company can replace you with two cheaper new employees.