Ageism, An Overlooked Bias

Aug 14, 2019

By Edie Stringfellow, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at MassBio

Ageism is likely just as prevalent as gender bias, but not everyone may know what it is or recognize it when it happens. Yet, at some point, if you are over 40, you have probably been nudged to either change your hair, update your wardrobe or trim off the earlier roles from your LinkedIn profile. As an industry, if we are asking for companies to support employees in bringing their authentic-selves to work, then we cannot ignore casual ageism or blatant ageist activities. Yes, ageism is a weird bias – but we are all likely guilty of it in some form or fashion. Let’s examine the benefits of addressing ageism and leveraging the experiences of older generations such as GenXers and Baby Boomers to make the industry stronger.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are currently five generations in the workplace. Many companies have at least four generations represented among their employees, if not all five. This can create many opportunities for ageism while also making it harder to have a fully inclusive culture for all employees. (Please note that the boundaries that define generations are not universally agreed)

  • Silent Generation / Traditionalists (74+)
  • Baby Boomers (55–73)
  • Generation X (39–54)
  • Millennials (23–38)
  • Generation Z / iGen (22 and under)

While certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older are legally protected from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) , ageism still presents itself in the workplace in a variety of other ways that can significantly impact an employee’s experience. Boston College Sloan Center on Aging & Work suggests that “negative attitudes toward late-career workers do in fact affect these workers’ engagement with their jobs and ultimately their mental health… and takes enough of a toll on their productivity that employers should pay attention and weed out the microaggressions for the good of the company.” Micro-aggressions are defined as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative slights and insults to the target person or group.

Here is some information on recent findings about ageism in the workplace:

  • Of workers in their 40s or older, nearly half are afraid that their age will soon cost them their jobs
  • Many middle-aged adults have altered their resume to look less experienced or to appear younger by removing graduation dates
  • 1 out of 10 said to have been passed up for a promotion, laid off, or denied access to career development because of their age

One way companies and fellow employees can foster a more inclusive environment for all generations is to better understand the changes in values, behaviors, technical advancements and critical events for each generation. Let’s look at how three generations may differ and how understanding the differences can create an inclusive and productive environment.

We now have the unique opportunity of having multiple generations in the workplace, and the ability to capitalize on contributions from every direction. I love that at MassBio we are in our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. It would be a disservice to the patient community if we do not find a way to leverage the perspectives of each generation to catalyze innovation. Employers should appreciate that GenXers and Baby Boomers are creative, educated, inquisitive jugglers that will bring value to any organization and can mentor the next generation of leaders.  Older workers have paved the way for more informed decisions, increased brain-storming and tremendous innovative ideas. According to Pitchbook, between 2012 – 2017, “The vast majority of IPO-stage CEOs in biopharma are older than their mid-40s. The median age of a biopharma CEO at IPO is 54 years old, and 75% were 48 or older.”

Here are a few recommendations to address generational unconscious biases:

  • Recruiting: For job descriptions, do not use terms like ‘recent college grads’, ‘culture fit’, or ‘digital native’ that mask age discrimination
  • Hiring: Put in the work to have an age-diverse interview panel
  • Retention: Focus on the person and not the generational stereotype for rewards – Some people like public praise and others may want to cringe at the thought. The quiet gesture of a simple ‘thank you’ may be enough. Go the extra yard to learn each team member work style and find out how an individual prefers recognition
  • Culture: Establish a program where ‘generational reps’ share information and experiences about their history, memorable events, culture, language, and norms
  • Intentionality & accountability: Create a reverse mentoring program whereas each employee is both a mentor and mentee

Aging is a lifelong process. We can’t stay young forever. If we are lucky enough, we get old. Because of inaccurate stereotypes and ageist attitudes about older workers, this may limit the older employee’s ability to fully contribute in the workplace. There is no evidence that supports the theory that older workers are any less effective or energetic than their younger co-workers. Being mindful of the assets of each generation, companies can minimize generational bias and friction. This will encourage higher retention, company loyalty, and ingenuity.  As the workplace changes, it is in everyone’s best interest to create a new understanding of ‘old’ and implement best practices to improve workplace culture.

What is your company doing to eradicate ageism? Share your story with us.

Additional Sources:
U.S. Census Bureau, National Population Projections Datasets, September 6, 2018

“Gray Hair in the C-Suite: Experience, Age and IPOs in Biotech” by Bruce Booth, Life Sci VC, February 26, 2018

“Here’s Which Generation You’re Part of Based on Your Birth Year – and Why Those Distinctions Exist” by Kevin Loria and Samantha Lee, April 19, 2018,

United State Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics from the Current Population Survey, February 15, 2019

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