As people live longer and retire later, organizations now have up to five generations working side-by-side: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. In fact, people over 55 are the country’s fastest-growing labor force, with twice as many older workers than teenagers employed in the U.S. today.

And yet, when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, age is rarely the first thing that comes to mind. Consider your own organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals: Is age even included?

If your answer is no, you’re not alone. Despite the best of intentions, many DEI conversations leave out an important form of identity that affects every single employee: age. A 2015 study found that while 64% of companies have a diversity and inclusion strategy, only 8% of them take age discrimination in the workplace into consideration.

What is age discrimination?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), age discrimination is any act that involves treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of their age. While discrimination based on age can happen to anyone–young, old, or anywhere in between—it tends to impact older workers the most.

As generational diversity grows, discrimination seems to be getting worse: An annual survey by the AARP found that 78% of older workers have seen or experienced discrimination based on age at work—the highest number since the survey began in 2003.

What causes age discrimination? It’s due, in part, to an implicit bias oftentimes against older people. Implicit bias, also known as unconscious bias, is a psychological phenomenon in which we unintentionally make assumptions about an individual or a group of people based on our own internalized stereotypes. In fact, a series of studies including an Implicit Association Test (IAT) on age attitudes and stereotypes in the workplace found that younger workers were perceived more positively than older workers.

What does the law say about age discrimination?

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), prohibiting discrimination against people who are over 40 years of age in companies with 20 or more employees. Originally, the ADEA only protected workers between the ages of 40 and 65, but Congress has since removed the upper age limits.

Under the ADEA, it’s illegal to discriminate against older workers on any decisions related to hiring, firing, promotions, layoffs, compensation, benefits, job assignments, or training. It also outlaws harassment, such as offensive or derogatory remarks, based on age. Other ADEA protections include:

  • Advertisements and job notices. Employers generally cannot include age preferences, age limits, or specifications in a job description.
  • Pre-employment inquiries. While it’s not explicitly illegal under federal law to ask a candidate’s age or date of birth, it may deter older workers from applying for a role or otherwise indicate possible intent to discriminate based on age. It’s better to obtain this information after an employee is hired.
  • Benefits. Employers cannot deny benefits to older employees, or spend less on older employees than younger ones.

The ADEA does not protect workers under 40 years of age. Although some states have distinct laws that protect young employees, in terms of federal law, it’s not illegal for organizations to favor an older worker over a younger one—even if both workers are 40 or older. Of course, this doesn’t mean discrimination against young employees isn’t important to consider. Ageism can cut both ways: A Glassdoor survey found that 52% of workers between the ages of 18–34 have experienced or witnessed age-based discrimination.

5 ways age discrimination impacts work

What does discrimination based on age look like in the workplace?

A 2018 EEOC report shows that today’s older workers are more diverse, more educated, and healthier than in previous generations. In fact, the most common jobs held by workers over 62 require a college education (e.g., teachers, lawyers, nurses) and/or consist of physically demanding tasks (e.g., farmers, delivery workers, nurses). While age is not predictive of ability or performance, the report found that people still believe in ageist stereotypes of older workers as cognitively or physically impaired across industries, race and ethnicity, income levels, and more.

A 2022 study revelaed that age bias can lead to the following discriminatory behaviors, including but not limited to:

  1. Harassment. Older workers may receive disparaging or derogatory comments about their age, from seemingly simple dismissals like “It’s complicated, you wouldn’t get it” to being infantilized as “so cute.”
  2. Dismissal. Older workers have decades of valuable work and life experience to share, and yet there’s a common misconception (especially in tech-related fields) that older employees are “out of date” or “don’t get it.” In fact, 15% of employees say they don’t want a boss over 70.
  3. Forced retirement or job loss. Employers may lay off older employees or encourage retirement earlier than an employee would like. Over 30% of full-time employees over 45 fear they could lose their job in the next year due to their age.

Addressing age discrimination

Discrimination based on age isn’t just an issue for employees. It costs employers, too! In fact, lawsuits over age discrimination have cost companies up to $250 million. On the flip side, like all forms of diversity, creating a welcoming and inclusive culture for a multigenerational workforce promises multiple benefits: intergenerational mentorship, a strong pipeline of talent, improved workforce continuity, increased innovation, and more.

While our five-generation workforce may have created more opportunities for discrimination, it also offers us more opportunities to thoughtfully build inclusive organizations for everyone. As author and activist Ashton Applewhite points out, “Ageism is prejudice against our own future selves.” By addressing age discrimination in the workplace, you’re not only building a more supportive environment for others—you’re building it for yourself, too.

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Ethena is a modern compliance training platform that delivers current, cringe-free content that employees actually enjoy. Our Harassment Prevention training brings the complexities of bias and discrimination to life through thoughtful real-world examples, dynamic multimedia, and actionable next steps. Talk to a member of our team to see if Ethena is right for your company.