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The 5 Reasons Why Most Companies Won’t Hire Older People

Ending ageism in the workplace is an uphill battle.

Key points

  • Many companies are resistant to hiring older people.
  • Discriminating against older workers is unethical and illegal.
  • There are compelling reasons why discrimination against older workers exists.
  • Ending ageism in the workplace represents a major challenge.

Given the well-documented and not encouraging employment statistics with regard to age, the question has to be asked: Why are most companies dead-set against hiring someone in their 50s or 60s (and increasingly in their 40s) despite equal opportunity policies and ESG initiatives? More broadly, why do managers purposely choose to engage in any unethical and illegal activity, particularly in today’s socially responsible business climate? Even HR and DEI people must recognize that eliminating job candidates based on a physical attribute (age) is precisely what their predecessors shamefully did when they excluded candidates based on skin color or gender.

There has been considerable effort lately to try to persuade employers to hire and retain older workers, with all the logical reasons presented over and over. As far as I can tell, no progress has been made, however, making one wonder why HR and DEI people knowingly violate our nation’s motto of “E Pluribus Unum” (“out of many, one”) through their narrowly defined interpretation of diversity, equity, and inclusion. More than that, they are denying a large group of people (once the largest generation in history) the basic human right to earn a living, quite a serious charge that even the United Nations is addressing.

By ignoring industry best practices and breaking the law (per the Age Discrimination in Employment Act passed by Congress in 1967 “to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age” and “to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment”), there have to be compelling reasons why HR and DEI people choose to do such an obviously wrong thing.

Why some organizations may refuse to hire older workers

Here are what I believe to be the primary reasons:

1. Youth rules in America.

We may elect septuagenarian presidents, but otherwise, our country values youth over age. Youth signifies energy, vitality, and beauty, while age represents weakness, decline, and unattractiveness. Companies want to project a youthful image to consumers and employees and managers and believe that having a bunch of people eligible for Social Security around would make them appear dated, irrelevant, and feeble.

2. We remind millennials of their parents.

Baby boomers look and act like the decidedly uncool parents of most employees at large corporations, making the former persona non grata. It’s OK that top management (like Mom and Dad) have gray hair and aren’t on Instagram, but working alongside such people is a whole other matter. The inconvenient truth is that generations generally like to be among their own.

3. We are not socially viable.

Vastly unappreciated in the issue of ageism in the workplace is that older adults are not considered desirable as friends or romantic partners. Going out after work and hooking up with (and sometimes marrying) co-workers is a huge part of a job experience for someone in their 20s or 30s, and age plays an important role in this entirely normal social activity. We focus on what takes place 9 to 5, forgetting that a job is actually about relationships that often spill over into our personal lives.

4. We represent a potential threat.

The pyramid gets ever narrower as employees climb the organizational ladder, and the potential arrival of older co-workers is seen as an unwelcome development. It’s one thing to compete against a colleague with equivalent work experience for a promotion, but something else with someone with 20 more years of experience. Better to just not hire them in the first place, the thinking goes.

5. Gerontophobia.

I believe there is a basic psychological component to the general shunning of older people in both social settings and at work. Older people are a convenient target of the anxiety and insecurity we feel about what is the ultimate existential dilemma of life—that it is certain to end. We blame older people for this troublesome fact, projecting onto them our inner angst related to the fear of aging and death.

How can we end ageism in the workplace?

Unfortunately, not by simply and repeatedly pointing out the value of older workers, showing how a multigenerational workforce is good for the economy, or presenting the myriad of other legitimate reasons. Instead, we need to address these more problematic and challenging issues head-on if we are to have any hope of rectifying the major injustice taking place in the American workplace.

References

Samuel, Lawrence R. (2021). Age Friendly: Ending Ageism in America. New York: Routledge/Productivity Press.

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