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Ageism in the Workplace: Forget About Age — Think Life Stage

Ageism in the workplace - don't think age; think life stage.Forget about what you think you know about aging. You’ve heard the adage “Age is just a number,” right? Well, if you’re an employer, it may be worthwhile to reflect on the depth of that statement for a moment. There’s so much more to a person than his or her age, but it requires a fundamental shift in thinking to look beyond just the number.

Employers who are looking to successfully integrate up to five different generations in today’s workforce must overcome certain stereotypes or preconceived notions we all have of workers of different ages.

One way to do so is by thinking about workers’ needs in terms of the various stages of life they might be going through — which isn’t necessarily reflective of one’s age, according to Jacquelyn B. James, a personality and developmental psychologist and co-director of research, primary data studies at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

“Somebody in their 40′s, for example, can be a grandmother for the first time or a brand new parent for the first time — that’s a life stage difference that matters a whole lot more than age,” James says. “Somebody who’s 50 years old getting ready to go out there on the job market would be an early career person and would be more similar to another early career person who’s in her 30′s than she would be to somebody who’s been in the company for a long time who’s in her 50′s.”

Taking a look at workers through the lens of life stage can be a relatively new concept for some employers, but doing so can help them manage the kind of diversity that exists in the modern workplace.

“Whether somebody’s children are grown or if they’re just starting a family, if somebody’s just starting their career or winding up their career — all of those things in a way matter more than age,” James says.

This is the third post in a multi-part ageism in the workplace series on The Hiring Site. In this post, we will focus on the misconceptions some employers have of older workers that may trigger ageism and the challenges of different generations working together. In our first post, we discussed the challenges older workers face when it comes to employment and finding a job. In our second post, we discussed some of the triggers of ageism in the workplace as well as tips to alleviate conflict and promote a culture of collaboration in a multi-generational workforce.

How employers can take charge

Many forward-thinking companies are taking a proactive stance by incorporating the older generation of workers into their business strategy.

For example, CVS explicitly states that they want their employees to mirror their client base, James says.

Employers ought to come across as being fair or impartial to groups of all ages within the workforce. If they say or do something on behalf of one group, it’s usually a good idea to make it broadly applicable to all groups within the organization, James explains.

For instance, if you want to make it possible for older workers to volunteer, don’t just advertise it to groups over 50; instead, consider opening it up to all groups to take advantage so no one group feels left out or that they’re getting treated differently.

Similarly, a lot of organizations have affinity groups based on employees’ particular life stages. A best practice is to say they’re open to everyone so anyone who’s interested can join and be part of the conversation. That way it doesn’t feel exclusive, James says.

Another area employers need to be cautious about is crafting communication or messaging both within and outside the organization.

For example, James points to an example of how something as simple as “no experience necessary” in a job posting can actually alienate older and more qualified workers, and you don’t want to give off the impression that you’re excluding certain groups — intentionally or unintentionally.

Sometimes seemingly innocent messages can be misconstrued or taken out of context, so it’s important to check and double check the company’s messaging before it’s released.

“Broadcasting openness and inclusivity is a good thing to do regardless – and age is one element of that,” she said.

Tell us in the comments below: Do you think it would help to build a more inclusive workforce by thinking in terms of life stage instead of age?

Deanna Hartley

About Deanna Hartley

Deanna Hartley is a senior copywriter and community manager on the creative services team at CareerBuilder, where she writes about issues that are top of mind for employers and recruiters – including talent acquisition, employee engagement and retention. An avid social media user, Deanna is the face behind @CBforEmployers on Twitter as well as CBforEmployers’ Facebook and Instagram pages, so it’s easy to stay connected with her. Prior to joining CareerBuilder, Deanna was a senior editor for the Human Capital Media Group, publishers of Talent Management, Chief Learning Officer, Diversity Executive and Workforce Management magazines. Deanna holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She loves caffeine, social media, pop culture and dogs – though not necessarily in that order.
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