by Eileen Hoenigman Meyer 

Ageism is a mounting concern domestically and abroad. The World Health Organization (WHO) goes so far as to say: “Ageism may now be more pervasive than sexism or racism. Ageism – discrimination against a person on the basis of their age – has serious consequences for older people and societies at large. Ageism can take many forms, including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or policies that perpetuate ageist beliefs.”

This is a critical time to examine the problem, because the global population is aging. According to WHO: “The number of people aged 60 years or older will rise from 900 million to 2 billion between 2015 and 2050.” This represents an increase from 12 percent to 22 percent — nearly a quarter of the world’s population will reach or surpass age 60 over the next three decades.

In the U.S., many seasoned professionals want to, and in many cases need to, retain employment longer than was once customary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts:

“From 2012 to 2022, the overall labor force will continue to age, and BLS projects that the number of workers in the 55-years-and-older group will grow by 28.8 percentage points, more than 5 times the 5.5-percentage-point growth projected for the overall labor force. The older group’s share of the total labor force has been on an increasing trend since 1992 . . . BLS projects that the share will increase further, to 25.6 percent in 2022.”

Institutions of higher education have long been trail blazers in their inclusivity practices. As employers, they frequently go beyond what other institutions offer by educating staff to identify the complexities of institutionalized discrimination and the intricacies of serving diverse populations.

But how does ageism fit in with this diversity work and how can more-seasoned candidates emphasize the value of their experience and avoid being negatively categorized because of ageist assumptions?

Challenge Biases
Many university professionals will recognize that challenging the biases we harbor is a necessary first step in diversity training. When it comes to ageism, we don’t have to look deeply to recognize that ours is a culture that disproportionately values youth over maturity.

Globally, the market for anti-aging services and products amassed $281.6 billion in 2015, and it’s expected to increase to $331.3 billion by 2020. Americans, and seemingly our international counterparts, are bombarded with the message that exhibiting the marks of our age is weak, ugly, and bad.

The resultant fear of being “found out” for going through a normal biological stage of development reflects a similar sense of self-doubt that members of other marginalized populations experience.

Just as we feel pressure to hide the marks of age on our faces, candidates may feel a similar pressure to obscure the marks of experience on their resumes by couching professional histories that “out them.” A robust professional track record should be an accomplishment; instead, many job candidates find it relegates them to “overqualified” status. They are left to wonder if “overqualified” translates to “too expensive,” “likely to bolt at another opportunity,” or is it simply a polite way of saying “too old?”

Discuss Ageism
While many institutions of higher education have centers on campus that deal with civility, diversity, and inclusion, some feature ageism less prominently than the core diversity topics they discuss. So job candidates, staff members, faculty, and non-traditional students who may experience ageism may also feel alienated on campus.

Human resources guru and Forbes contributor Liz Ryan echoes the World Health Organization’s observation, but on the domestic front. She writes: “Age discrimination is everywhere. I hear more examples of age discrimination than I hear about sex discrimination, racial discrimination, and every other kind put together.” 

If ageism is as globally prominent as WHO asserts, and also has the domestic implications for job seekers that Ryan asserts, then why wouldn’t it be a more frontline topic when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

In an article Sarah Raposo and Laura L. Carstensen wrote for the “Journal of the American Society on Aging,” the authors note: “Compared with the immense amount of literature on racism and sexism, surprisingly little empirical research has been conducted on the ramifications of ageism.” 

Despite its prominence, ageism doesn’t hold the place it should in the diversity conversation. Ageism is a reality that complicates life for many Americans. Job seekers are particularly vulnerable. They need trained allies to help them navigate these challenges and to help them advocate for change.

The Beauty of Experience
Ageism is a reality. It’s important for job seekers to be aware of this, but also to focus on their unique strengths in the job search. Soft skills such as resilience, communication skills, interpersonal skills, the ability to work on a team, adaptability, and problem-solving skills are in high demand. These abilities are commonly the bi-products of experience.

Raposo and Carstensen note, “Relative to younger adults… older adults are more emotionally stable, less likely to experience anger or fear, and more likely to be interested in making meaningful contributions. In addition to having more knowledge and expertise, older people generate wiser responses to emotionally charged interpersonal problems and solutions for intergroup conflicts… Such qualities hold great potential for workplace productivity and cohesion…” 

Expert tips for Seasoned Pro’s
Consultant, author, and speaker, Barry Maher has appeared on the “Today Show,” “NBC Nightly News,” and others. He’s been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The London Times, Business Week, and USA Today. Maher advises:

“Older applicants need to deal with the negative perceptions of age and to stress the positives they’ve picked up because of experience. Ideally, they should show that age and experiences make them stronger, even in those very qualities the employer associates with youth. But they should never do it defensively, they should always do it positively, if at all possible raising the issue themselves rather than letting it lie there as an unspoken problem.

I also recommend that older applicants address the ageism issue even in their cover letter or cover email to their resume, though there they should do it more obliquely, stressing their positives: their energy, how they’re keep current, the value of their experience, etc.”

Although the data on ageism may seem daunting, experience matters. So does building awareness and bolstering scholarship on issues of ageism. Institutions of higher education are uniquely positioned to lead this initiative through research, education, and hiring practices and policies.