Ageism is going to make recovery from the pandemic even slower

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines ageism as stereotyping against people on the basis of their age. If a series of recently conducted national polls are of any indication, the practice is both pervasive and underreported.

“Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially “normalized” of any prejudice, and is not widely countered – like racism or sexism,” WHO writes. “These attitudes lead to the marginalization of older people within our communities and have negative impacts on their health and well-being.”

In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have expressed concern over the lasting health implications associated with ageism.

A team of researchers at the Yale School of Public Health recently determined that age-based discrimination not only suppresses potential talent in the workforce, but it also surges depression rates among those affected.

The authors identified 11 factors related to ageism that pose a direct risk to overall health:

  • Exclusion from health research
  • Devalued lives of older persons
  • Lack-of-work opportunities
  • Denied access to healthcare and treatments
  • Reduced longevity
  • Poor quality-of-life and well-being
  • Risky health behaviors
  • Poor social relations
  • Physical illness
  • Mental illness
  • Cognitive impairment

The American Psychologist journal reports that individuals who experience ageism in any context evidence significantly higher levels of heart disease and hearing loss compared with those who do not. This was found to be doubly true of older women.

“Ageism remains one of the most institutionalized forms of prejudice today,” wrote Todd Nelson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, Stanislaus. “Our entire society tells older people, you are useless, unwanted, and a burden. It tells younger people that getting old is bad, and being old is worse.”

At what seemed to many to be the peak of ageism practices across American firms, experts are now predicting a tough road ahead for older populations seeking work in a post-pandemic world.

Collectively, unemployment and underemployment rates for workers over 65 hit a record 26% back in May. For whatever reason, elderly applicants seem to be fairing the worse during the corona-crisis, even though they were the fastest-growing demographic of the workforce hitherto.

The answer might be something like a chicken and the egg phenomenon, or maybe it’s that the pandemic is concurrently compounding ageist sentiments and being energized by them.

Since SARS-CoV-2 penetrated the US back in January, Ladders has been reporting on the destruction it’s brought to our elderly.

Aggressive relief efforts appeared to coincide with a growing number of young otherwise healthy mortalities.

In fact, it could be (and has been) argued that the misconception that named the elderly the sole vulnerable cohort with respect to COVID-19 kept the rest of us from taking it seriously.

We now know that cluster spreading staffed by young people is the most influential contributor to the virus’s growth curve.

There weren’t many seniors among the 700 people who attended an Airbnb party in New Jersey just a few weeks ago.

“Is the reality that elders are most likely to get ill and die from COVID-19 affecting the way countries—particularly the U.S.—are responding to the pandemic?” Louise Aronson, who is a geriatrician and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, posed in a recent op-ed. “There are many logistical and political reasons why America’s response has been weaker compared with other countries’. But as a doctor, I’ve encountered evidence that suggests ageism is playing a role too, in part because ageism has always shaped the kind of medical care that older Americans receive.”

When coronavirus outbreaks continued to erupt nationwide, a series of effective countermeasures were developed to prevent another trial of commercial shutdowns. Payment protection ended, employers sought to expand, and the elderly were once again counted out of recovery optics.

Our misperception about the capability of our seniors has dramatic adverse effects–not just on them but our country’s trajectory.

We’re still in the midst of a retirement crisis. In a recent poll conducted by Provision Living nearly two-thirds of the Americans surveyed said that they will not have enough savings to retire by 65. And the older we get, the more expenses we typically take on.

The only way to fix this deficit is to facilitate long-careers that generate enough revenue for firms to support efficient retirement programs.

“Help older workers and retirees decide if they have sufficient savings to retire and how to deploy their savings to last throughout potentially long retirements, president of Rest-of-Life Communications, and a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, Steve Vernon explained. “Encourage employers to help extend older workers’ earning years.

“We argue that companies must bring older people back to work and give them meaningful, important jobs. Despite the billions of dollars spent convincing us that our “golden years” should involve travel, golf, and sitting around the pool, research actually shows that people who stop working and retire often suffer from depression, heart attacks, and a general malaise of not having as much purpose in their lives.”

If we’re going to address these trends first we have to dispel a few myths. You can find a more thorough analysis here, but some bare repeating.

Advancements in technology are often cited as a reason against taking on older workers. This argument may have been more feasible a few years back, but we live in an all-encompassing digital age. An age wherein the unknown and expertise is usually just a weekend and a few tutorials apart from one another.

A recent Dropbox poll comprised of more than 4,000 IT employees found that workers ages 55 and older operate the same number of forms of technology as those between the ages of 18 and 34.

“Although younger workers see their older co-workers as slower to adopt new technologies, our data shows that adoption levels are quite even across age ranges,” Rob Baesman, head of product at Dropbox, wrote in a blog post. “Older workers are just as likely to use as much technology as their younger peers. Younger workers are also more stressed out, anxious, and frustrated by it than their older peers.”

There are still merits to be found among those who are slow to fully embrace a digital workspace.

“Older workers remember a time when communication wasn’t dominated by e-mail, instant messaging, texting or social media,” writes Debi Ritter at Corp Magazine. “As a result, they have advanced communication and people skills … face-to-face communication is an essential skill in the business world and one that junior staff sometimes struggles with; they could benefit from having a mentor.”

Similarly, stereotypes regarding declining focus in older workers were debunked by an international Cogito Study conducted a few years back.

In it, the authors reported older workers to evidence more consistent performance marks over time compared to younger workers, in addition to excelling in decision making assessments. These also tended to take fewer uncalculated risks.

Although a 2015 report by the AARP, found employees over the age of 55 to be between 1 and 10% more expensive than younger workers to hire, the former also takes considerably less sick days.

All of this to say, that there are certainly instances where it makes more sense for an employer to go with a younger candidate, but there are never instances that justify an older candidate being excluded outright.

One of the lessons I hope makes an impact after COVID-19 is behind us, cautions against the exclusion of any member of society based on an amorphous set of qualifiers.

“As the global economy ages, ageism bias will become a more important issue than ever. Put the terms “longevity” and “age” into your wellbeing, DEI, and recruiting strategies. Remember that many people — no matter their age — do not have enough money to retire (even if they wanted to),” Vernon concluded. “In the U.S., it costs $1 million to retire at age 65, yet 21% of Americans have no savings, and 10% have less than $5,000 in savings. All this to say, people of every age are motivated to come to work. If you can create an inclusive, fair, and meaningful experience for older employees, as well as younger ones, you’ll not only find your company becomes more innovative, engaging, and profitable over time, you will be benefiting society at large.”