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  • Melissa Sims

Fighting a Battle We Can't Win

I have reached a time in life where things are just starting to noticeably change. Weight seems to pack on much easier than it used to, my laugh lines stay a little longer, and everything seems to droop a little more. I will admit, I got Botox once, years ago, and hated it. I didn’t like not being able to make facial expressions, and it actually made me feel depressed. No judgement here though - whatever makes you feel confident is wonderful. Just not for me. So now my cabinet is packed with creams, under-eye patches, light therapy - you name it. All in the name of fighting that one thing that none of us will ever truly defeat: age. 

It’s glaringly obvious that society, as a whole, is largely biased when it comes to the idea of getting older. Take the presidential campaign, for one. We have the two oldest candidates in the history of our country, and there is a new joke daily about their mental acuity. I actually think both men are quite sharp, but I don’t really know if their sharpness equates to being a good president. But, I digress. My point here is that whether we like to admit it or not, most of us likely have, or have had in the past, an implicit bias toward age, and it isn’t only directed at older generations.

Ageism, the discrimination or prejudice against individuals based on their age, is an often-overlooked issue that permeates all levels of society, particularly the workplace. This bias not only fosters an environment of exclusion but also significantly hampers organizational and societal progress.

Implicit bias in ageism manifests differently across the age spectrum. Older employees often face stereotypes that portray them as being out of touch, resistant to change, or less productive. This can lead to reduced opportunities for promotions or professional development and can sometimes hasten their exit from the workforce. Conversely, younger employees frequently encounter biases that paint them as inexperienced, overly ambitious, or lacking in necessary professional decorum, which can undermine their credibility and stifle their career advancement. Think about your own work environment. If you are in the “older” sector, do you look at those younger than you as unfocused, lacking work ethic, unserious, and inexperienced? If you are in the “younger” sector, do you look at those older than you as feeble at times? Maybe lacking in technology skills, and out of touch with what’s important? Old people drive too slow, young people drive like maniacs, old people can’t figure out technology, young people won’t get off their screens. 

These stereotypes don't just affect individual careers; they influence the dynamics within teams, affecting morale and reducing the overall effectiveness of the workforce. The assumption that a younger worker isn't ready for leadership can lead to missed opportunities for innovation, while underestimating an older employee's ability to contribute can result in a loss of valuable experience and wisdom.

All of this begs the question: what is “old” to you? Is it a magical number? If “old” isn’t a number for you, is it a physical or mental deterioration? Teresa and I discussed this for the podcast that drops next week: the strange idea that we must work incredibly hard and save all of our money until we reach ‘retirement age’ and then we just STOP. (Which, sadly, can speed up the aging process for many.) People that continue to work past that age and continue to be productive typically live longer than those that don’t. And more and more younger generations are not buying into the idea of a “nest egg” for retirement; rather, they are enjoying the fruits of their labor now, while they are physically able to do much more than when they reach a later age. 

The concept of "old" has been drilled into the American psyche with the implementation of Social Security. The concept of retirement as we know it today didn't always exist. It was largely shaped by the Social Security Act of 1935, which introduced an official retirement age to help ensure economic security for the elderly, reduce unemployment, and stimulate job opportunities for the younger demographic. Originally set at age 65, this benchmark has significantly influenced societal perceptions of what it means to be 'old.' Yet, I know a lot of people that age that show no signs of slowing down, and in no way signify to me that they are "old." 

The retirement age was essentially a construct based on the economic and social conditions of the time, not on the actual physical or mental capabilities of older adults. This has created a lasting impact on how older individuals are perceived in society and the workforce. As life expectancy has increased and many people remain healthy and active well past the traditional retirement age, the definition of 'old' has become increasingly outdated, yet these perceptions stubbornly persist.

As for the younger demographic, priorities have completely shifted, and the concept of retirement is not what it used to be. Because of that, the work ethic is quite different. Instead of ‘killing oneself’ for the almighty dollar, many do not consider work to be their identity. It is just a means to enjoy life, right now. This creates a conflicting dynamic in the intergenerational workplace. But this also creates an opportunity - to lead with curiosity instead of judgement. To use mindfulness to try to understand our own biases, and to understand others’. 

Ageism is a pervasive issue that limits the potential of individuals and the organizations they belong to. By actively working to counteract implicit biases, we can create a more inclusive and productive work environment. Such an environment not only respects but leverages the diverse strengths and experiences of all employees, leading to greater innovation, improved morale, and enhanced company success. Let's commit to recognizing the value in every year of life and work towards a future where age is just a number, not a barrier.


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