Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D.

The Next Step

Maybe If I Was Younger...

Research shows "mismatches" between age stereotypes and jobs can cause problems.

Posted Dec 28, 2016

Age discrimination has been an issue in the workplace for a long time.  But can the social meaning of our age also harm our work opportunities? 

Cliff/Second Term - Room 2/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made
Being an older job seeker can make you feel invisible.
Source: Cliff/Second Term - Room 2/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made

My own research shows that when the meaning of our job does not match the meaning of our age, we can lose employment opportunities and/or suffer emotionally.

Age Has Many Meanings in Our Society

Terms like “college-aged” and “over the hill” reflect society’s expectation that people perform certain roles at certain ages.  For example, college is thought to be for 17-to-23-year-olds, and having children is “supposed to be done” in one’s 20s or 30s.

Social pressure to be age-appropriate is strong.  Because of this, mismatches between one’s age and role can seem odd to us and to others, and can be distressing.  Think of the movie “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”   The whole premise of the movie’s humor was that we expect someone who is 40 to have had plenty of sexual experience, but we expect a virgin to be under the age of about 18 or 19. 

In the U.S., our jobs are also a big part of who we are.  So when the meaning of our age conflicts with the meaning of our jobs or potential jobs, problems can occur.  I call this an age-based identity mismatch.

Age-Based Identity Mismatches and Work-Related Problems

In the research for my book Job Loss, Identity, and Mental Health, unemployed men and women told me that when a job was not age-appropriate, problems occurred, and this made them feel depressed and/or anxious

One problem was that job seekers limited themselves when looking for work, applying only for jobs that were age-appropriate (in their minds).   I’ll use the stories of three people– Skip, Cindy, and Janelle – to show how this worked.

Skip's Story

Many unemployed job seekers felt “too old” to continue working in the same field they had previously been in.  This often happened after company mergers led to layoffs.  During these layoffs, companies often replaced older, more experienced workers with younger (cheaper) ones.

davidcuen/Bank/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0/no changes made
Skip stopped looking for banking jobs because he thought he was too old for them.
Source: davidcuen/Bank/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0/no changes made

For example, “Skip,” a 53-year-old former bank vice president told me that banking these days was “a young man’s game,” and that even though he had always identified with his job, he could no longer work in banking because it was now for young people.

Cindy's Story

“Cindy,” who had been an award-winning 62-year-old travel executive, left her job shortly before being fired.  Cindy had been assigned a new, much younger boss after a company merger.  This boss mostly hired young employees and kept telling Cindy that Cindy “didn’t get it.” 

Cindy ultimately began to think of herself as old, slow, and incompetent even though she was a very good employee.  After becoming unemployed, she did not want to look for jobs in her field of expertise because she thought the travel industry was (in her words) “really made up of much younger people now…That’s old and done with, and I’m finished.”

Janelle's Story

Other job seekers I spoke to felt too old for the low-skilled jobs they were offered after having worked in professional fields most of their lives.  For example, 39-year-old “Janelle” lost her job in broadcasting.  As her checking account dwindled, Janelle at first expanded the type of jobs for which she might apply.  Janelle thought about applying for a bank teller position, but ruled it out because bank tellers were, as she put it, “really young, like in high school or college,” and it depressed her to think of working in a “young person’s” job.

Janelle was finally offered a job as a product demonstrator (handing out food samples at a big box store), but did not accept the offer because she thought it was for younger people.  She told me that to take it would be “horrible” and that maybe she would have taken it “if I was 25, but I’m 40.”

Age stereotypes and age discrimination in the workplace make it much harder to find work.  This, in turn, prolongs a bad financial situation. 

As a society, we can benefit from more discussion of age stereotypes and workplace age discrimination, with an eye toward eliminating these obstacles (including through legislation).  This would also help middle-aged and older adults who find themselves unemployed, as it will be easier for them to continue working in the fields they have already enjoyed, and in which they have already thrived.   Employers and society can then also continue to benefit from the many years of expertise that older workers have to offer.