Age Discrimination in the Workplace Essay

Changes in life are inevitable. They happen for us as individuals, in the community, and in the larger scope of society. They happen in the home and in the workplace. The ramifications of these changes and the effects they produce can be positive, negative, or both. How one deals with these changes impacts the well-being of society, which speaks to the focus of social work. How can social workers not only influence the changes that benefit society, but how can they deal with the changes that impact human life. The focus of this paper is to analyze the impact of aging in the workplace, and how social workers can address the impacts of dealing with the process of aging that can mutually benefit the individual, the workplace and society at large.

Moreover, the paper deals specifically with workplace discriminating in regards to aging and how social workers can effectively work toward creating an environment for inclusivity. The Aging of Society As global demographics switch to an increasingly older population, living gradually longer, society must learn to adapt their strategies for the work place. As low-income aging adults experience economic insecurity, they continue to work well past typical retirement ages (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2008). The increase in human life expectancy also means the population is aging at a slower rate. (Sanderson & Scherbov, 2015). Problems that can arise from aging in the workforce can be physical, psychological, and social in nature. This includes age discrimination occurring in the recruitment and hiring phase, the workplace culture, and the termination phase. With Americans living longer and working well into their later years, age discrimination should not be overlooked.

What Is Age Discrimination?

Direct from the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), age discrimination is described as the mistreatment of any employee based on their age (EEOC). This law only applies to individuals over 40 according to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA, 1967). The ADEA was enacted by congress in 1967, applies to individuals between the ages of 40 and 65 and must be considered in all “hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms of employment” (U.S. Dept. of Labor). The following is a brief list of what is prohibited under the ADEA:

  • Prohibited to use advertisements or job notices that include “age preferences, limitations or specifications (Except if age is proven a “bona fide occupational qualification” for work)
  • Age discrimination in training programs
  • Force of early retirement
  • Denial of benefits to older employees
  • Waivers of rights are permitted but only under certain circumstances (ADEA, 1967)
  • Retaliation if employer files an age discrimination claim against their employer (ADEA, 1967)

What has become of these occupational standards and practices that organizations in the United Sates have followed for over 50 years and are they helping? Rothenberg & Gardner conclude that despite the ADEA laws, age discrimination continues to plague the workforce (2011). According to the Value of Experience Study, a national survey conducted by AARP, 61% of respondents over the age of 45 said they have either “seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace; 38% of those believe the practice is very common” (Perron, 2018). The report also indicates that 92% of people over 45 believe that age discrimination laws need to be improved; with over half of them believing discrimination starts after that age of 50 (Perron, 2018). Before going into how social workers can work in the occupational arena, it’s important to understand the effects of age discrimination from multiple perspectives.

The Cultural aspects of Age Discrimination

Ageism, like racism and genderism, is based on unfounded beliefs, attitudes and assumptions leading toward systematic stereotyping of an entire demographic of people. The labels such as senile, in the way, useless, old fashion, etc., allow young people to see aging adults as different than them; to the point that they “subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings” (Butler, 1975, p. 35). Although age discrimination is definitely a consequence of these societal stereotypes, feelings and beliefs, age discrimination has more to do with the behavior that results from ageism (Herring, 2009, p. 12). For example, anybody can be ageist and hold negative views of an older adult, but it isn’t discrimination unless there is some form of withholding privilege or abuse going on. Still, it is important to address the root of age discrimination, which is ageism, if corporations hope to change the culture in the workplace and create a more inclusive environment.


Stereotyping often leads to decisions by organizations and other employees that can negatively impact older worker, despite their capabilities, skills and experience. Stereotyping was narrowed down to six categories by Posthuma and colleagues: resistance to change, lower ability to learn, shorter tenure, poor performance, costlier, and more dependable (Posthuma & Campion, 2009; Posthuma, Wagstaff, & Campion, 2012). Besides being more dependable, five out of six of these stereotypes have an overall negative effect for older adults at the workplace, contributing to a non-inclusive work environment. Fixed attitudes toward older workers affect employer moral and customer/consumer confidence in the service or product of the business or organization in question.

Stereotypes also contribute in a multidirectional manner and effects how a person interacts and thinks about a particular group; and also, how that group being stereotyped sees themselves (Horton et al., 2007). Besides influencing how older adults see themselves, ageism also affects how older adults view other older adults, their own physical and cognitive abilities, and their personal abilities to address health concerns; including responding to disease, seeking medical assistance and the decision to participate in cognitive, physical and social interactions (Dionigi, 2015). These outcomes play an important role to the holistic health of older workers and the quality of their work experience. Businesses should be concerned with how older employees are being treated, whether there is real mistreatment happening or perceived stereotypes coming from their older adult workers. Attitudes at work are not the only way society stereotypes older adults. Most pictures of older adults in photography and media display older adults as frail and finding older adults doing normal activities is significantly less .

The Consequences of Age Discrimination: The Individual Impact

Work-able people are working for longer, often times forced into working long after their retirement years. Of the Americans over 45 polled in an AARP survey, 42% said they need the money and 12% said they support family members, while the most common reasons are to stay mentally active (91%) and to “make extra money to buy the things they want” (Perron, 2018). Older adults are generally confident they will keep their jobs, with over 80% saying it is “not very likely” or “not likely at all”. But of the remaining, almost half of those that are worried they would be left out of the workforce if laid off pointed to age discrimination as the reason (Perron, 2018). Age discrimination can affect the employee both mentally and physically making stressful situations even worse (Dionigi, 2015).

The long-term effects of age discrimination on employee well-being include negative views of self-esteem, symptoms of depression, adverse physical health and health behaviors (Shipee et al., 2017). These are also symptoms that grow out of stressful environments, such as workplaces where age discrimination is prevalent. Feeling a “lack of respect and having to [chronically] prove oneself” creates an atmosphere of fear and acute stress that further adds to the mental, physical, and social breakdown of a worker (Shipee et al. 2017). This puts workers at risk of being fired, reassigned to unpleasant duties, getting “tacky comments” form other workers or staff or getting bad performance reviews that limit one chance at raises–indicators that age discrimination is taking place for individuals in the workplace (Horovitz, 2015). Overall the effects on employee mental health affect employee well-being, production and ultimately, services for the employer.

The Workplace Environment (mezzo)

Age discrimination in the workplace affects mezzo level workers as well. While micro level work looks at the effects produced by stereotypes and age discrimination effects at the individual level, mezzo level work deals with the group or workplace environment as a whole (Seck et al., 1996). The workplace environment consists of a certain culture–shared beliefs, styles of management, workplace rules and norms all contributing as factors for workplace practices (Ciampa & Chernesky, 2013). The culture at the workplace has the ability to create a workplace that supports their older workers or one that is conducive to discrimination. The standards for which workers are evaluated and assessed comes from those for whom authority is granted and hold positions of power. If a person does not meet the standards of the organization, they may face hostility and lose out on benefits (Chernesky, 2005).

The overall environment in the workplace has implications on worker success for older workers. If the workplace environment is hostile or offensive, age discrimination can be a real problem. In these settings, other employees, managers or supervisors may be the ones harassing and discriminating directly. In addition, work employees that acquiesce to slurs, jokes, biases and disparities are as much to blame in the workplace setting. The implications of these characteristics in the workplace can lead to burnout, highly levels of stress and low productivity overall, creating a toxic workplace (Chernesky, 1998). Furthermore, organizational toxicity is the result of insensitive actions by work members, managers and company practices that result in the drain of vitality at the individual and the organizational level (Frost, 2003, p.13).

The Larger Effect on Society (macro)

Age discrimination at a workplace can results in expensive legal fees, lowers production and moral in the workplace and create an additional burden in unforeseen training that burdens employers with avoidable costs. In addition to the threat of lawsuits for corporations, there is also the threat to society if older workers are not welcomed in the workforce. The implications to the economy can be compounded, as baby boomers leave the workforce for retirement, creating the possibility for a shortage of workers. This also means there will be higher demands on society to take care of its aging population. This could mean higher taxes for corporations as a means to alleviate the social impact of retirees or unemployed older adults’ need to meet the rising costs of housing and healthcare.

Social Work and Workplace Discrimination

The workplace can be a disadvantage for older workers in comparison to their younger cohorts. When compared to younger employees, older workers can be extremely handicapped if they are among the minority. In terms of hiring, younger adults are preferred if they are amongst the same applicant pool as older adults (Finkelstein et al., 1995). Some evidence shows that older adults above the age norm are susceptible to lower performance reviews (Lawrence, 1988), even though there is no association between age and low performance ratings (Avolio, Waldman, & McDaniel, 1990) It also holds that low performance scores lead to higher consequences for older workers in comparison to younger employees (Rupp, Vodanovich, & Crede, 2006).

Research regarding the opportunity for training and professional development point to fewer opportunities for older workers (Maurer & Rafuse, 2001), even more so if they are above the workgroup average (Cleveland & Shore, 1992) or older than the manager (Shore et al., 2003). There is also proof that the likelihood of receiving a promotion as a workers age is decreasing (Cox & Nkomo, 1992; Lawrence, 1984); mostly because of norms and attitudes toward aging and career progression (Lawrence, 1990). Unlike myths that suggest older workers are less capable of learning new skills, research suggests that older workers are more likely to be open to asking question regarding their work requirements leading to an increase in role clarity and overall job satisfaction (Finkelstein et al., 2003).


The negative impact age discrimination has on society at all levels can be addressed by social workers and businesses in ways that benefit everyone. The conditions at work play a vital role for worker well-being and the continuous improvements of self-concept (Roxburgh, 1996). Workplaces need to adapt to the coming changes that accompany an aging workforce and a competitive global market. With an emphasis on creating workplace cultures that are inclusive and concentrate on age diversity and age-friendly work spaces. This can be done through the development of training programs, accountability by HR, and developing Codes and Ethics expected to be followed by all employees. Stereotypes and discrimination towards older workers impacts people at the individual level and the workplace level, spilling into larger ramifications for disrupting social cohesiveness in the long run.