With culture a corporate buzzword these days, and businesses hiring expensive outside consultants to show them how to build the kind of coveted, exemplary company culture that attracts the best talent and allows them to scale, it’s baffling that so few business leaders understand how drastic a hit ageism can be to those very efforts.
The difference between ageism and other forms of discrimination is that everyone—unless they’re unlucky, and a tragedy befalls them—gets old. Everyone within a company is subject to the possibility of falling victim to ageism. It’s a lot harder to look the other way, think, well, at least that won’t happen to me, or be safe within any kind of privilege bubble when you know it’s only a matter of time before you’re in the same boat as the coworker who was just marginalized and pushed out due to their age.
When you’re thirty-five and working hard toward the peak achievement years of your career, it’s terribly demoralizing to watch a fifty-five-year-old colleague be diminished with ageist rhetoric. It’s all too easy to imagine it happening to you, too.
What kind of environment does this create? How productive—and how loyal—can any employee be expected to be when they’re fully and painfully aware of the limited extent of their value to the organization?
A strong company culture can’t flourish when employees are shown evidence that they’re disposable.
Valuable to the End
There was a time—and this thinking still exists in some larger companies, although it’s generally waning—when workers of a certain age felt justified in coasting through the rest of their tenure. If that’s true in your organization, while not a negative result of ageism, it needs to be rectified just the same. No matter your age, you have to be good at what you do and valuable to your organization if you want to be valued. I would abandon the #ImNotDone movement in a heartbeat if anyone perceived it as protectionism.
My message to older workers is this: never stop being good, and never stop trying to be better.
Ironically, ageist company cultures only promote the “senioritis” phenomenon. General disengagement is all too easy when a worker knows they’re likely to be marginalized as they age. The above thought quickly becomes, why bother giving it my all when they’re just going to push me out anyway?
Strong company culture reinforces pedal-to-the-metal engagement and productivity throughout the lifetime of a career. Ageism, in so many ways, subtly promotes easing off the gas, and it’s the company’s productivity that suffers as a result.
A Good Culture is a Diverse Culture
The word “diversity” means “the state of being diverse; variety; a range of different things.” “Diversity,” the word, derives from the word “different,” which is defined as “not the same as another or each other; unlike in nature, form, or quality; distinct; separate.”
Simply put, diversity means any differentiation between a person, place, or thing. For our purposes, it specifically means “different people” or “people who are not the same.”
Traditional determinations of “difference” stem from the Civil Rights era, and focus on external distinctions like race, ethnicity, and gender. These days, we also determine difference in new ways. Diversity thinking has expanded to include our experiences, our age, and our thoughts or views. We have even started to include aspects of our lives like the size of the city people are from, if they’re from a red state or a blue state, and how they vote.
Put simply, we’ve realized that a fully inclusive look at the world and its population has to be expanded beyond the basics of our biographies.
This change did not occur as a result of an external force like the civil rights movement; rather, it came about due to the necessities of business itself. In order to keep up with the speed of technology, business leaders began to realize that diversity is a key foundation of innovation, a key ingredient of success. Nothing impedes success more than the groupthink and echo chambers that arise when everyone is alike and therefore thinks alike.
Ironically, though, age is still largely absent from the diversity conversation.
According to Price Waterhouse Cooper’s 18th annual survey of CEOs, when asked how many of their diversity and inclusion strategies included a conversation around the issue of age, only 8% said it did. This means that even CEOs are realizing a lack of age diversity in their companies. In the same vein, the Society of Human Resources Professionals acknowledges that HR departments are not dealing with this issue either. While businesses have jumped on the #MeToo bandwagon and deserve credit for addressing gender inequality, they are still turning a blind eye to age discrimination. Even more ironically, remember this from earlier: ageism is the one “status” or affinity that ultimately affects us all. Everyone—no matter their sex, gender, race, experience, background, and ethnicity—gets old.
If, as we old folk often joke, “youth is wasted on the young,” it is fair to say that age, wisdom, and experience are in danger of being wasted in many businesses. Diversity and inclusion might top the agenda—but an awareness of ageism is conspicuously absent.
To be crystal clear, when I talk about age diversity, I’m not just talking about older people here; businesses need twenty-year-olds as much as they need sixty-year-olds. Diversifying a business’s workforce according to age is the right thing to do morally and economically. Diversity of thought simply cannot be achieved without age diversity.
According to Daniel Goleman, Author of Emotional Intelligence:
High performing teams are dynamic and able to rise to the increasingly complex challenges of businesses today. But there’s much more to this productivity than just technical skills. The interplay of perspectives can be vastly more important to a team’s success than their hard skills. Vibrant teams where strengths are accentuated, and weaknesses compensated for, are those teams that are made up of very diverse people and have been trained to operate in an inclusionary way. A diverse team is one that is comprised of numerable experiences…innumerable experiences including age and experience. And it is also of course things like race, gender, and spirituality. These are the lenses through which we interpret the world, and these are the lenses that allow people to solve complex business problems.
A New Way of Thinking
At the end of the day, when it comes to building a great company culture, a mindset shift is necessary. Diversity is not a box to be checked, nor is it a program—it is a culture. Company culture needs to welcoming and inclusive to all. Older workers are not going away, and a business should set the example of valuing these older workers from the top down.
I often ask HR departments: how much are you talking about age when you conduct inclusivity workshops?
The answer is almost always “not much.” These workshops almost always focus on racism, sexism, and better-known forms of discrimination—not ageism.
When I hear this, I then ask what’s being done to change that. You can probably guess the answer I usually get—not much!
The problem is that ageism simply isn’t on many CEO’s agendas. Bottom line: senior leadership needs to send a signal to the entire organization that this is important.
For more advice on ageism and workplace culture, you can find I’m Not Done on Amazon.
Over the course of an impressive four-decade career, Patti Temple Rocks has held senior leadership positions in three different sectors of the communications industry: PR, advertising, and on the corporate client side. She is an inspirational leader, innovative thinker, problem-solver, growth driver, brand steward, and agent of change. Patti is passionate about fighting age discrimination and helping people understand how it harms individuals, businesses, and society as a whole. To learn more about this issue and get in touch with Patti, visit her website, http://imnotdone.rocks.