Age Grading is Failing All of Us

You know the phrase “right person, right place, right time”? It feels great when you are that right person. Or hire the right person.

But at work, implicit bias can creep into decisions about who is right, for what particular place, and for when.

What is age grading?

In the corporate world, quite a lot of effort has been put into understanding and challenging how such bias impacts decisions about “who” and “what”. But far less attention has been given to the issue of “when”—and to conscious and unconscious judgments about whether someone is or is not “age appropriate”.

And yet biases and assumptions about the so-called “right time”, and accompanying unwritten and written rules about age, pervade our views of work and career stage (see Becca Levy and Mahzarin Banaji’s article Implicit Ageism in Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons). I call this age grading. And while picking that “right” person or being that “right” person may feel good, the reality is that using age as a filter for opportunity is not working.

It’s not working for women facing age discrimination decades earlier than male colleagues across industries. It’s not working for 40-year-olds in tech worried that they are already aging out. It’s certainly not working for the older workers who already no longer have a place at work, who have literally been pushed out or are struggling to find new opportunities because of age. It likely won’t work for the FIRE (financially independent retire early) folks who have organized their lives to be able to retire “early”—but who might want or need to return to work after years of other adventures.

Consequences of longevity

People are living to be 100-plus (hat tip to The 100 Year Life). That longevity makes for a lot of years to orchestrate lives, interests, and finances; a lot of years to get excited about new opportunities and to handle dramatic changes in industries and regional economies. Outmoded notions of the “right age” for training, development, and career shifts do an injustice to individuals, families, and communities. When credentialed and experienced 45-year-olds are concerned about being too old and 55-year-olds have a hard time getting work, we have a societal problem. We cannot have people spending more of their adulthood deemed age inappropriate than age appropriate.

Our workplaces also suffer from age grading. Well-managed diverse teams perform better than homogeneous ones. Research indicates that diversity leads to more deliberation of more ideas, which may feel less productive but in fact results in increased innovation and effectiveness. Age diversity and experience reflected in the multigenerational workplace is a crucial, yet underrecognized element of the mix.

Of course, having a manager who is younger than an employee’s own children may be challenging. Assumptions about who belongs, and what is the right age for a job, don’t help– whether you are too young or too old. Nor do workplaces where many employees feel stuck and where older workers (rather than inadequate talent stewardship) are blamed. But there’s power in mixing things up, learning from, and advocating for each other. Many of us have meaningful examples of multigenerational relationships in our lives, working together and seeing ourselves—and others—in new and positive ways. Cross-generational expert Phyllis Weiss Haserot highlights these types of successes in a recent interview on this blog.

Challenging age as a filter

'We must join together and challenge age as a filter that stands in the way of opportunity.'Click To Tweet

We must join together and challenge age as a filter that stands in the way of opportunity. Respectful Exits’ focus on abolishing both the “sell by date” and obsolete ideas about the “right time” to retire is key. I believe we must deconstruct the whole system to support a vibrant longevity agenda and career path flexibility. Age grading is failing all of us.

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