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date: 20 February 2017

Counseling Older Adult Victims of Ageism in the Workplace

Abstract and Keywords

Despite the significant life and work experiences that a growing number of older adults have to contribute to the workforce, pervasive ageism operates in overt and covert ways to discriminate against older workers in hiring and workplace practices. This article provides a current overview of definitions, prevalence, types, and effects of ageism in the U.S. workplace. For social workers counseling older adult victims of workplace ageism, this article discusses theories, foundational knowledge, and ongoing self-awareness and training needed for bias awareness. Counseling strategies and resources are highlighted, including coping and resilience strategies to counteract ageist stereotypes and discrimination, facilitate job-seeking support, and advocate for older workers by promoting awareness and serving as a resource for employers to reduce workplace ageism.

Keywords: Older workers, Ageism, Workplace discrimination, Counseling

Current Employment Trends for Increasing Numbers of Older Adult Workers

An unprecedented demographic shift toward the aging of the world’s population and workforce occurred in the twentieth century, and it is projected to continue well into the twenty-first century (Brownell & Kelly, 2013; Peterson, 2002). An increasing number of people are seeking or remaining in employment beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 due to financial necessities, desires to continue productive engagement in society, or both. In the late twentieth century, labor shortages were predicted based on trends toward early retirements and lower birth rates. However, more recent shifts in economic conditions in the U.S. and global labor markets have resulted in higher unemployment rates and increased competition for limited jobs. Thus, a growing number of older workers are financially unable or unwilling to retire, or they have become involuntarily unemployed (Macik-Frey, 2013). In this context, the difficulties that the growing number of older workers face in obtaining and retaining employment are exacerbated by ageism in the workplace.

Definitions, Prevalence, Types, and Effects of Ageism in the Workplace

Workplace discrimination has been defined as unfair, negative, or abusive treatment of job applicants or workers based on personal attributes that are irrelevant to job performance. These attributes include age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or national origin (Chou, 2012). Ageism, a term coined by Robert Butler (1969), has been defined as systematic and pervasive prejudice toward, stereotyping of, or discrimination against older people based on perceptions or definitions of them as “old” (Nelson, 2005). While ageist and abusive attitudes and discriminatory behavior have been investigated in many settings (for example, health care and housing), ageism in the workplace is a growing concern for an aging population (Brownell & Kelly, 2013).

Just as freedom from discrimination based on gender or race or ethnicity is considered a civil right, so too should freedom from discrimination based on ageism in the workplace be addressed as a human rights issue (Powell, 2010). Yet, workplace ageism in the United States continues to be prevalent despite legislation in place since 1967 that protects people over the age of 40: the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA; Rothenberg & Gardner, 2011). Annual statistics show substantial and growing numbers of workplace age discrimination complaints are filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Chou, 2012 Gibson et al., 2010). Yet, such incidents are likely underreported as a result both of difficulties in providing evidence for age discrimination in the employment process (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006) and of broader societal influences that neglect addressing age discrimination in public dialogue or in the popular press (Roscigno, 2010).

Many types of workplace ageism, in hiring and on the job, have been identified and documented. Ageist biases negatively affect workplace decisions and systematically deny older adults access to opportunities and resources in employment, termination practices, retirement, benefits, and training and promotion (Dennis & Thomas, 2007). Workplace ageism occurs on levels that are personal (for example, an individual’s negative stereotypes, attitudes, and beliefs about an older person), institutional (for example, mandatory retirement age policies), intentional (for example, abusive practices that are deliberately and knowingly biased against older individuals), and unintentional (for example, practiced without the perpetrator recognizing the bias) (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006).

Workplace ageism may manifest in overt and covert forms. Examples of overt workplace abuse or bullying against older victims include intentional and repeated mistreatment, sabotage by others to impede targets’ work performance, intimidation, humiliation, verbal abuse, and threatening behavior (Powell, 2010). Research evidence also supports the prevalence of more covert forms of workplace ageism, such as hidden or implicit ageist biases manifest in negative attitudes of which perpetrators are not necessarily aware (Malinen & Johnston, 2013). At the interpersonal level, in the form of microaggressions, older workers have reported experiencing workplace discrimination in daily social interactions such as subtle derogatory comments (for instance, negative and unfair comments on one’s ability or performance) or condescending treatment (for instance, unfairly being given undesirable tasks, being subject to closer surveillance than others at the job, being ignored or not taken seriously by a supervisor, or seeing coworkers being promoted with less experience and fewer qualifications) (Chou & Choi, 2011). A study of ageist attitudes and causal attributions found that older workers received more severe recommendations for poor performance (demotion, transfer, or resignation) than did younger workers (Rupp, Vodanovich, & Credé, 2006); older workers were also less likely to receive recommendations for formal assistance (referral to an employee assistance program) or for training to remedy performance problems.

In addition to ageist micro-aggressions, older workers have reported commonly experiencing micro-aggressions in the workplace based on their gender, race, or ethnicity (for example, receiving sexual, racial, or ethnic slurs from a supervisor or coworkers) (Chou & Choi, 2011). Older adults often experience prejudice and discrimination, both covert and overt, at interpersonal and institutional levels, based on age and other aspects of their diverse and intersecting identities—for example, based on sexual orientation (Averett, Yoon, & Jenkins, 2013). For women in particular, ageism and sexism in the workplace place them in double jeopardy as they grow older. Beyond the workplace practices, policies, and stereotypes that disadvantage women as they age, women tend to outlive men in the United States; are more likely to assume a disproportionate share of caring for ill and dying parents, in-laws, and spouses or partners; are overrepresented among part-time workers (in part to accommodate care-giving duties); and thus are left more vulnerable to poverty in old age (Barnett, 2005).

Negative ageist stereotypes commonly held by employers include beliefs that older workers are inferior to younger workers in energy, adaptability, productivity, ambition, health, creativity, flexibility, and interest or ability to engage in training, upgrade skills, and cognitively master advances in technology (Jackson, 2013; Stark, 2009). Despite substantial empirical evidence to the contrary, negative stereotypes about older workers persist and continue to influence employers in their mistreatment of older workers (Chou, 2012).

For older workers themselves, whether they believe that any of the ageist negative stereotypes are true or apply to them personally, the threat of being stereotyped may impair their work performance and health (Jackson, 2013). Research has shown with individuals from other groups vulnerable to negative stereotyping that their performance and health can be harmed by stereotype threat—that is, the expectation that they may be judged not on their performance or potential but instead on the basis of negative stereotypes, regardless of the accuracy of the stereotypes and whether the individuals themselves believe the stereotypes are true (Block, Koch, Liberman, Merriweather, & Roberson, 2011; Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002).

Although to date research is limited on the effects of workplace ageism in particular, there is substantial evidence that workplace discrimination against other group members including older workers (particularly women; Barnett, 2005) has adverse effects on employment outcomes in hiring, retention, termination, and promotion as well as on workers’ performance, health, and well-being (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006; Chou, 2012). At a macro level, workplace ageism has been empirically linked to reduced organizational performance (Kunze, Boehm, & Bruch, 2011). Employers and managers should constructively address workplace ageism so that the benefits to society are not lost from the contributions of an entire segment of healthy functioning older adult workers (Macik-Frey, 2013). The right to work is a fundamental human right, and older adults deserve freedom from workplace ageism (Caldera, 2013).

Theories to Understand Workplace Ageism

Some theories or potential explanatory models have been offered to better understand why workplace ageism exists. Social workers can use these to inform their counseling with older adult victims. Brownell and Powell (2013) noted that theoretical models of bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace have several factors in common with conceptual models of elder abuse and mistreatment: power and control, dependency, and negative outcomes. Chou (2012) noted several theoretical perspectives proposed to examine the causes of workplace ageism, some based on negative ageist stereotypes regarding productivity (for example, the belief that older workers are less productive than younger, less expensive workers) or adaptability (for example, that older workers are unwilling or unable to upgrade their skills), and others based on employers’ misinformation about the abilities and assets of older workers. Regarding negative ageist attitudes in the workplace that are more implicit, automatic, and unconscious, less is known about how to intervene. In contrast, with negative ageist attitudes in the workplace that are overt, explicit and acknowledged, Malinen and Johnston (2013) cited research that interventions to establish more inclusive social norms have been used to improve these attitudes and thus may reduce workplace ageism.

Counseling Older Adult Victims of Workplace Ageism

Social workers are a much-needed resource for helpful interventions, particularly practitioners who are trained in both occupational social work and gerontology, who can provide counseling to older adult victims of workplace ageism (Mor-Barak & Tynan, 1993). The following section will first outline foundations for this area of counseling: assess the client and his or her life contexts, including the occupational context; develop knowledge about the common issues faced by older adults victims of workplace ageism and the specific issues for the client; and develop self-awareness of the social worker’s own ageist and other biases and continuing training and education to ameliorate these biases. The subsequent section will highlight counseling strategies and resources, including employee assistance programs, legal resources, coping and resilience strategies to counteract ageist stereotypes and discrimination, facilitating job-seeking support, and advocating for older workers by promoting awareness and serving as a resource for employers to reduce workplace ageism.

Life and Occupational Contexts, Workplace Ageism Issues, and Social Worker Biases

Most older adults maintain high levels of functioning, performance, and resilience when well supported with environmental demands in their life, health, sociocultural, and employment contexts (Lichtenberg, 2010; Sterns & Dawson, 2010). Social workers can assess the meaning of work and sources of challenge and support for the individual client’s life contexts. Developmental lifespan transition issues with relevance for occupational counseling with older adults include experiences of loss (for example, deaths, health declines, financial insecurity), caregiving responsibilities (for older, aging, or younger family members), retirement planning, generational cohort, and intersecting identities that make older workers vulnerable to workplace discrimination.

Social workers need to be knowledgeable about the common issues faced by older adult victims of workplace ageism in order to assess the specific issues confronting the client. Social workers can provide empathic understanding by nonjudgmentally eliciting, reflectively listening, and accurately affirming the client’s perceived experience of ageist work discrimination. From the base of a therapeutic relationship, social workers can help the client identify goals and consider constructive coping strategies (Jackson, 2013).

None of us is immune to ageist biases, including social workers and others who counsel older adult victims of workplace ageism. For example, a study of social work practitioners and students revealed a high level of self-reported ageist behavior, including paternalistic protection, that, despite good intentions and in contrast to strength-based core values of the social work profession, could undermine treatment goals with older adults to facilitate their autonomy and enhance their capacities (Allen, Cherry, & Palmore, 2013). Therefore, it is imperative that social workers and other clinicians consciously examine their own assumptions and continually monitor the influence of ageist (and other negative) stereotypes in their counseling with older adults confronting workplace discrimination (Jackson, 2013). Clinicians should seek consultation and opportunities for further education in bias awareness and countering ageist beliefs and myths (Allen et al., 2013; American Psychological Association, 2014).

Counseling Strategies and Resources

Social workers counseling adult victims of ageism in the workplace can help inform clients of their rights, access helpful resources, and consider and evaluate various strategies for coping constructively and for taking action. For example, they may help clients consult human resource staff or legal counsel to familiarize themselves with relevant policies, consider filing a complaint, or pursue justified legal recourse regarding rights protected under age discrimination and other laws—in the United States, for example, the ADEA of 1967, the Older Worker Benefit Protection Act of 1990, the Americans with Disability Act of 1990, and the Family and Medical Leave Act (Barnett, 2005; Gibson et al., 2010; Spencer, 2013). Employee assistance programs may also serve as a resource for some older workers confronting age discrimination.

Social workers can help older adults counteract ageist stereotypes and discrimination in the workplace by considering various coping and resilience strategies. In counseling, it can help clients to name and empathically understand their experiences with workplace ageism as well as examine the feelings elicited and responses made so far. Another counseling strategy is to help clients challenge negative ageist stereotypes in the workplace. Armed with sound sources of information, clients may be empowered to confront and counter ageist myths (for example, regarding inevitable declines in work performance, health, and ability to learn) and replace these with more realistic and evidence-based appraisals of older workers’ assets in knowledge, productivity, work ethic, stability, and mentoring contributions (Berger, 2009). As one strategy to counter ageist discrimination in seeking as well as maintaining employment, counseling can help empower older adults to adopt lifelong learning values and access opportunities to further develop and upgrade their occupational skills (Berger, 2009; Macik-Frey, 2013). Another coping strategy to counter workplace stereotype threat or age discrimination is “positive distinctiveness,” whereby older workers learn to clearly communicate the benefits of their employment experience, skills, and knowledge (Jackson, 2013; Stark, 2009).

Counseling and advocacy for collective action is also a potential coping strategy. Social workers and older adult victims of workplace ageism can join with others to promote change in the workplace by raising awareness of the influences of ageist stereotype threat and discrimination and shifting to more inclusive institutional and sociocultural norms (Jackson, 2013). Collective action that constructively addresses workplace ageism (including intersections with work discrimination based on other social identities) is urgently needed to advocate for public policies, funding of supportive programs, and beneficial legislation for older adults seeking employment (Chou, 2012).

Social workers can help older adults constructively cope with the job-search process by organizing support groups, or connecting with existing programs, to help them build useful networks of contacts, prepare effective résumés, practice for interviews, and develop assertiveness skills to challenge age discrimination (Mor-Barak & Tynan, 1993). Nonprofit career-development organizations, such as Forty Plus Clubs and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) are examples of employee networks and affinity groups that may provide social support, developmental opportunities, and advocacy for older workers (Jackson, 2013). With the convergence of prevalent workplace ageism and higher competition for jobs in the economic downturn of the early twenty-first century, proactive strategies are needed to help older workers develop and effectively market their skills and reject age stereotypes (Macik-Frey, 2013). Counseling can help older adults maintain self-efficacy in the job search process by training them in negotiating strategies to counteract prospective employers’ ageist stereotypes (Berger, 2009).

Another approach to advocacy for older victims of workplace ageism is for social workers to promote awareness with, and serve as a resource for, employers (Mor-Barak & Tynan, 1993). Social workers can provide employers with information about demographic trends; evidence countering negative stereotypes about older workers; and facts about the benefits of, and practices for, hiring, retaining, and promoting the performance and well-being of older workers. Social workers can help advise companies to develop employment recruitment policies that are sensitive to older adults’ needs and offer work arrangements, job modifications, support services, and training programs that facilitate older workers’ productivity. Research evidence suggests that promoting intergenerational contact and fostering an organizational multiage perspective have beneficial influences in productive workplace attitudes for employees and organizations (Iweins, Desmette, Yzerbyt, & Stinglhamber, 2013). Social workers can help employers develop practices that affirm workplace accomplishments of older workers and acknowledge their integral role in achieving the organizational mission (Stevens-Roseman, 2007). The valuable experience and maturity of older workers can be tapped for organizational benefit and for training future leaders (Macik-Frey, 2013). In order to help employers reduce workplace ageism, social workers can promote including age as a significant component of all diversity training; develop training guides on ageism for educating management and staff personnel; and conduct intergenerational training to develop communication and team building (Dennis & Thomas, 2007). Social workers have a critical role in counseling with, and advocacy for, older adult victims of ageism. This is an issue of human rights and dignity as well as social justice.


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Further Reading

Gerontological Society of America. http://www.geron.org/

Workplace Bullying Institute. http://www.workplacebullying.org