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When does age discrimination start?

Workers may be experiencing discrimination as young as 45

By Brian Kreissl

I last blogged about age discrimination back in 2012 when I discussed a study conducted in the United Kingdom that found negative attitudes towards age were strongest with respect to the youngest and oldest members of the workforce. The study also found the sweet spot for people’s careers tended to be in their forties – an age typically associated with the highest perceived status in the workforce.

However, some recent studies and anecdotal evidence are now beginning to suggest workers could be starting to face age discrimination as early as age 45. According to a study undertaken by the University of Technology, Sydney, in Australia, people aged 45 and older who lose their jobs may never be able to land another job again.

Lead author of the study, Keri Spooner, commented that negative stereotypes about older workers tend to focus on their perceived discomfort with technology, difficulty in working with others and greater likelihood of getting sick. She also noted that older workers who find themselves out of work tend to take longer to find employment than their younger counterparts.

Other articles and comments I have read also focused on the fact that older workers tend to be more expensive, have greater family obligations than younger workers and are perceived to be resistant to change. Such attitudes seem particularly prevalent in organizations and industries that tend to skew younger in their workforces.

Too young to be ‘over the hill’

Leaving aside employment-related discrimination against young people – a real and persistent problem – 45 is awfully young to be considered “over the hill.” With the end of mandatory retirement, people living longer and healthier lives, many governments raising eligibility ages for state pensions and other retirement benefits, skills shortages, low rates of return for investment portfolios, the virtual demise of defined benefit pension plans and changing attitudes towards aging, aren’t we supposed to be able to look forward to long careers stretching into our seventies and beyond?

I find this prospect terrifying not only because I am exactly 45 years old, but also because that means the average person could potentially only have about 18 good years in her career in the minds of prospective employers. That’s because many people really don’t hit their strides in their careers until about age 27.

To think people would start winding down their careers at 45 seems absolutely absurd. What are people supposed to do with themselves for the next 20 or 25 years?

Do younger people not realize that within a very short time they will themselves be an age they considered positively ancient not so very long ago? Do employers not realize they are artificially narrowing the talent pool and throwing away a great deal of knowledge, experience and wisdom?

Not having ‘made it’ by a certain age

I have even seen people who weren’t exactly spring chickens themselves discriminate against older candidates. Part of this relates to a perception that certain jobs should only be filled with young people or that if one hasn’t “made it” by a certain age he never will and therefore that person is most likely lazy and unambitious.

That type of thinking can have a detrimental effect on career changers, mature graduates, immigrants, women who took time out of the workforce to raise their families and those who simply never found themselves in the right place at the right time in their careers. There are only so many opportunities to move up in most organizations, and not everyone is even interested in being promoted.

As mentioned in my earlier post, I believe that the Canadian labour market is a little less youth obsessed than other countries, and our careers do tend to peak at later ages than elsewhere. However, even here I am starting to see some evidence of age discrimination against candidates in their mid-forties.

Potential problems include looking to hire “digital natives,” obsessing over “cultural fit” above all else and looking for candidates who are “energetic,” “bubbly” or “dynamic.” I also believe that focusing solely on attracting, retaining, developing and promoting Millennials, completely overlooking Generation X employees for promotions and assuming all Baby Boomers are ready to retire is causing age discrimination to begin at much younger ages.

In the coming weeks I am going to discuss age discrimination relating to young people and explore what employers and jobseekers can do to help combat age discrimination.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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