To many employers, workplace diversity deals mainly with diversity in gender and race. While these two categories are incredibly important, there is actually a third category that many employers often overlook: age diversity.
Just like gender and race are protected under employment law so too is age. Under the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, workers over 40 years old are protected. Despite this protection workers over 40 continue to be a major segment of the workforce that is facing discrimination. In a 2017 AARP study, it was found that two thirds of workers between the ages of 45-74 have reported experiencing age discrimination by their employers. Additionally, under the charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one fifth of those charges are concerning age discrimination.
Currently, the unemployment rate for older workers is increasing much faster than those of younger workers. This trend should concern employers not only because they may face litigation if they are contributing to it by discriminating upon older workers but also because they will be losing the many benefits of age diversity in the workplace.
Employers might be blinded to the benefits of age diversity by the strong stereotypes older workers carry. Specifically, that older workers are a competitive disadvantage because they might not be up to speed on the latest workplace trends and technology. However, this is not the truth, there is more competitive loss when a workplace has absolutely no age diversity. This is because if older workers are lost in the workplace then so to is their intellectual and social capital as well as the ability to attain diversity of thought in the workplace.
First, older workers have increased crystallized intelligence, which translate to more experiential knowledge and job related expertise. This knowledge and experience benefits the workplaces as it lets older workers see important patterns based on past experiences. Also, because older workers have been working for much longer they also have much more social capital though the connections that they have built.
Second, what is arguably the most important reason for employers to support age diversity is the creation of diversity of thought when older and younger workers interact. Just this year a study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology demonstrated that increased interactions between older and younger workers brings about an increase in motivation and an increase in their commitment to stay with the company. This occurs because younger workers gain more engagement as a result of being taught by an older colleague. Consequently, in that interaction older workers also gain emotional energy by sharing their knowledge to the next generation.
Not only must age diversity be supported by ending the discrimination of older workers, but it must also be supported through practices in the company that allows for greater interaction between older and younger workers. For instance, employers can implement mentor and mentee programs as well as cross functional task forces which allows older and younger workers to learn from each other.
Ultimately, now more than ever, older workers are at a greater risk of leaving the workforce due to the dangers of COVID-19. Thus, another great practice for employers to implement is flexibility with older workers. This way older workers might decide not to leave if they are given the flexibility to work from home or to have flexibility in schedules. By protecting older workers, the workforce will not be hurt in the long run as employers can prevent the huge loss of benefits older workers bring to a company.
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