Gen Xers raise concerns over bias against age at workplace

Tuesday, March 26th, 2024 03:00 | By
Although ageism has long been a concern in the job market, it has hit Gen Xers particularly hard.
Although ageism has long been a concern in the job market, it has hit Gen Xers particularly hard. PHOTO/Print

Gen X workers are being passed over for roles of all kinds, especially as employers see young people as more malleable. The timing couldn’t be worse.

Since his layoff last May, Nick, a 49-year-old HR executive based in the US, estimates he’s applied for hundreds of jobs. He secured interviews at 10 companies, and made it to the final round at four of them. Each time, the position went to a younger candidate. “It’s tough not to take it personally,” he says. “I have an excellent track record and lots of experience. A company should be lucky to have me, right?”

Throughout his search, Nick has received lots of advice on how to position himself as a job candidate in his demographic. One head-hunter suggested he removes his education dates from his LinkedIn profile to prevent employers from calculating his age.

A recent encounter with a hiring manager, however, was not as subtle. “He said to me, ‘You can’t make many more pivots in your career at this point’,” says Nick. “The implication was that my prior job might have been my last. It was blatant ageism.”

Ageism has long been a concern in the job market, but the confluence of mass layoffs, post-pandemic economic uncertainty and rapid technological change – including the emergence of AI – is hitting Gen Xers particularly hard. According to a 2022 AARP survey, roughly 80 per cent of workers between the ages of 40 and 65 reported having either witnessed or personally faced age discrimination at work. This percentage represents the highest recorded by the organisation since it began conducting polls on the issue among older adults in 2003.

Gen Xers, largely defined as people in the 44-to-59 age group, are struggling to get jobs. First, the leadership roles they would normally ascend to aren’t open, as many Boomers are delaying retirement and clinging to their jobs. But when roles have opened, ageism is a key factor: the accelerated pace of technological advancements has led managers to prioritise digital natives for open roles, believing they are more adaptable than Gen Xers – even though experts say these judgments are unfounded, if not entirely false.

It’s a particularly bad time for mid-career workers to be grappling with age bias, according to Christina Matz, associate professor at the Boston College School of Social Work, and director of the Center on Aging and Work. Many Gen Xers are navigating the “sandwich” phase of life, juggling responsibilities like childcare and support for aging parents, she says. They have burdens on both their time and their money – and most are not ready to stop working, whether because they have pressing bills to pay, retirement to save for or because they don’t want to lose career momentum.

Vulnerable position

These factors, combined with the perception that Gen Xers don’t quite fit into either the tech-savvy digital native or highly experienced worker categories, leave them in a uniquely vulnerable position, says Matz. “Gen X is caught in the middle. And where does that leave them?”

Age discrimination is illegal in many countries. And not only is it often difficult to prove, but its impact on people’s careers is also very real. In some cases, like Nick’s, older workers will be turned down for jobs; other times, they’ll be passed over for leadership positions or overlooked for training and development opportunities.

Studies show that older workers (broadly defined as those aged 55 to 64) and mid-career employees (aged 45 to 54) face a variety of stereotypes and misconceptions. Members of Gen X, born between 1965 and 1980, straddle both these age groups.

Among these biases, older workers are sometimes perceived as “doddering but dear”. Matz says, “They’re labelled as slower and set in their ways, well-meaning on one hand and incompetent on the other. People of a certain age are considered out-of-touch, and not seen as progressive and innovative.” Women face additional hurdles. Women in their 40s are often perceived as being preoccupied with family responsibilities. “Being a woman and being older is a double whammy,” adds Matz.

Assumptions like these are not only potentially discriminatory and often inaccurate, they’re also at odds with today’s workforce realities, says Anne Burmeister, an Academy of Management Scholar and assistant professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Netherlands. The workforce in many industrialised economies is aging and perpetuating age-based biases makes “no business sense”, she says.

Being a woman and being older is a double whammy – Christina Matz

“Very few organisations recognise this external demographic trend, and even the ones that do seem to not see the urgency to act,” she says. Instead, argues Burmeister, “what organisations should be doing is putting in place policies that leverage older workers’ skills, expertise and experience”. Matt Hearnden, a former executive recruiter turned career coach in London, says he’s observed many instances of ageism second-hand while coaching his Gen X clients though their job searches.

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