Will the Pandemic Make Corporate Culture More Age-Friendly?

Happily, the era of the office appears to be ending.

Posted May 24, 2020

For as long as it has existed, corporate culture has been less than welcoming towards people of a certain age. Even in today’s litigious climate, where lawyers are happy to take a case in which a company appears to have discriminated against a person based on a physical attribute, blatant, although hardly ever mentioned or acknowledged, ageism is present in many, if not most, corporations. Job applicants with college degrees from the 1970s are typically promptly eliminated from consideration even though they may be otherwise ideally qualified for a management position.

If anything, one would expect people of different ages to be eagerly welcomed into organizations as an expression of diversity—a prime initiative of human resource departments—but this is simply not the case. The unfortunate truth is that discrimination against older people in the American workplace is commonplace (and illegal), a product of our deeply embedded cultural aversion to people considered past their prime. For a variety of reasons, young adults prefer to be around other younger adults, making age the only remaining demographic criterion in which it is acceptable to discriminate, often in the name of something like “overqualification.”

This is obviously a shameful thing and not much different than the methods of previous generations of managers who would not hire qualified candidates if they happened to be African American or female. Human resource people’s practice of defining diversity in terms of skin color and gender but not by how many years a person has lived is bad not just for older people but for companies themselves. Older people often bring a valuable set of skills to any organization if only because they have more life experience.

The pandemic is a horrible thing by any measure, of course, but it may present an opportunity for corporate culture to live up to its claims of equal opportunity and “best practices.” We were slowly but steadily drifting towards a more virtual workplace before the pandemic, but now the online universe is rapidly replacing the traditional office. With our ever-expanding network and ever-increasing bandwidth, we’re realizing that we can get much of our work done without having to go to and from an office building on certain days at specified times.

The implications of the breakdown of time and space as related to work are now becoming clear. More and more companies, especially those in the tech sector, are wisely concluding that the physical infrastructure constructed to put employees together in a building is largely inefficient if not unnecessary. Beyond the potential health risks, office buildings are expensive to construct and maintain, and rents, taxes, and insurance comprise a high percentage of operating costs. It makes simple fiscal sense to bypass these expenses, assuming there is an acceptable alternative with which people can effectively communicate with each other.

The internet is that alternative. After a few decades of construction, the internet has reached a point where it can serve as a functional platform for much of what companies do. With continued improvements and advancements in technology, the transition from analog to digital work will accelerate, further making the notion of the office obsolete. Happily, the era of the office appears to be ending, and it will not be long before we view the idea of clustering employees in a big building on weekdays from 9 to 5 as a curious artifact of the 20th century that lingered a bit too long. 

The end of the office could be a very good thing for both older people and for companies that are not living up to their potential due to their discriminatory practices. Because a person on Zoom or its equivalent has far less physical presence than in real life, managers may be more open to hiring someone past middle age. Likewise, young adults may be more receptive to working with older adults in a virtual setting than in a real one. It may be an odd thing to contemplate, but less attention is paid to a person’s physical attributes in a little square box on a screen than if he or she is in the same room.

For tens of millions of baby boomers, the prospect of corporate culture becoming more age-friendly due to advancing technology would be a very welcome development. Rather than end one’s career at a predetermined age, usually 65, to embark on a life of leisure in a sunny, warm place, most of today’s sexagenarians and septuagenarians want to work as long as they possibly can. Besides the obvious reason—money—work is a prime source of identity for individuals and offers a reason to get up in the morning. Research shows that having some kind of meaning and purpose in life is linked to both physical and emotional health, and often adds years to longevity.

Let’s hope that the pandemic ultimately serves as a catalyst for positive social and economic change such as a more equal workplace.