In 2007, at a Y Combinator event at Stanford University, Mark Zuckerberg told attendees, "Young people are just smarter." Zuckerberg's comments, while over a decade old at this point, reflect a deeply-rooted startup mentality that glorifies youthfulness and perpetuates ageism.
According to a 2018 study by AARP, almost one in four workers aged 45 and older have experienced negative comments about their age from superiors or co-workers.
As workplaces transition to remote work--which may be especially unfamiliar to older demographics who entered the workforce in the pre-internet era-- it's now more important than ever to understand ageism in the workplace. Here's what you need to know as a business leader to make sure everyone feels supported.
1. Older workers are more likely to experience burnout.
Burnout affects people of all ages. But, according to a 2019 study by my workplace, Asana, among more than 10,000 global knowledge workers, burnout is even more pronounced in older demographics. Seventeen percent of workers aged 45 or older reported experiencing burnout more than five times in the past year, as compared to only 14 percent of workers aged 18 to 24.
Stress can be especially crippling for older people. As the body's cells age, they are less able to accommodate the body's stress response. And when stress is left unchecked, it suppresses the immune system and makes people more susceptible to illness.
To combat this, ask yourself what resources you offer your older workers to help prevent burnout. Consider matching older workers with mentors that are of a similar age. Offer resources for older workers on how to manage stress in the workplace. And incorporate age diversity into your diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Age-diverse teams have been found to be more innovative than other teams.
2. Lack of feedback is a bigger stressor for older workers.
Ageism can be subtle. The same Asana study also revealed that older workers cite a lack of feedback as a more significant stressor as compared to younger workers. Nineteen percent of workers aged 45 or older said that their biggest source of stress or anxiety at work was a lack of performance feedback, compared to only 11 percent of workers aged 18 to 24.
Age should not affect the type or volume of feedback that your workers receive. Audit your feedback channels. Are older workers subject to the same level of feedback as younger demographics? Consider additional avenues for older workers to receive feedback. Education is also key--make sure to educate younger managers who may be hesitant to give high-quality feedback to older co-workers.
3. Older workers prefer different work schedules.
There are numerous biological differences between older and younger workers. For one, research has shown that older people secrete less melatonin as they age and feel the need to sleep earlier than their younger counterparts.
If older workers are apt to sleep earlier, it makes sense that they'll prefer to leave work earlier. According to the Asana study, 13 percent of workers aged 45 or older leave work before 4 p.m., as compared to only 8 percent of workers aged 18 to 24.
Make sure you offer older workers flexible options beyond just workplace location. Think first before you schedule meetings at or after 4 p.m. While older workers may still technically be "on the clock," they may be less alert and productive in the late afternoon hours.
Last year, the New York Times published an opinion piece entitled, "Young People Are Going to Save Us All from Office Life". There's a perception held by some that older people are less flexible and adaptive to remote work as compared to their younger counterparts. While older workers are less likely to use digital technologies and, potentially, less likely to gravitate to remote work, this doesn't mean that they cannot thrive in a remote work environment.
The companies that recognize ageism in the workplace and redesign practices and processes to accommodate older workers are more likely to thrive in this new era of work.