Diversity Management

Age Stereotypes in the Workplace: Common Stereotypes and Guidance for Practice

It is widely known that the workforce in the United States is aging. With this, comes a more prevalent risk of age stereotyping within the workplace, affecting a larger group of individuals.  If stereotypes cause an increase in the rate of turnover within older workers, organizations fail to take advantage of skilled and productive workers.

Types of Age Stereotypes

Personal beliefs and expectations about workplace age groups are considered workplace age stereotypes. Often these stereotypes are biased, negative preconceptions about older workers (this can also include younger workers), which include:
  • Poor Performance- older workers have lower performance, productivity and motivation.
  • Resistant to Change- older workers tend to be harder to train, are less adaptable, and more resistant to change, resulting in less return on training investments.
  • Lower Ability to Learn- older workers tend to have less ability to learn; therefore, they do not develop new skills as well as younger workers.
  • Shorter Tenure- Due to their age, older workers are thought to have more turnover than other age groups.
  • More Costly- Older workers are more costly because they are close to retirement, use more benefits, and obtain higher wages.
These stereotypes are all rather negative giving a poor outlook for the older workgroup.  On the other hand, there is evidence to refute these negative preconceptions:
  • General Tendencies- Little evidence supports declining performance with age, and more often performance improves with age.
  • Individual Differences- Age is less important than differences in individual skill and health.
  • Tenure- Older workers are less likely to quit, thereby resulting in more return on investment (e.g., training investments).
It should be noted that age stereotypes could be directed at younger workers too (i.e., an older individual is hired over a younger individual because it seems as though they have more experience), but our focus here is on older workers.

Implications for Practice

When dealing with age stereotypes in the workplace, organizations should:
  • Identify Reasonable Factors. Ensure that hiring practices can identify factors other than age, which have influenced hiring decisions.  Preventing age stereotypes requires vigilance through observation and statistics, thereby preventing legal liability.
  • Use Job Related Information. Identify age stereotypes to increase the likelihood of correctly identifying when they occur, while using valid selection procedures.
  • Use Training and Development. Ensure management is properly trained to identify age stereotypes, while properly training employees will lead to development and growth of workers as they age.
  • Target High-Risk Areas. Identify situations or jobs that have been stereotyped towards a certain age group.  Often times varying jobs are identified within a certain age group, therefore creating bias within a certain job domain (e.g., CEOs should be older individuals).
  • Utilize Older Workers as a Competitive Advantage. Focus on skill rather than age, thereby hiring the most skilled older workers other companies may have over-looked due to their age.
  • Consider Adding Complexity. Due to the fear of declining cognitive ability, managers are often inclined to reduce older worker’s responsibilities, but research suggests it may be better to switch things up and make them more complex.
Ageism may be occurring in the workplace; however, there are many methods or practices that can be useful in mitigating the negative consequences.

Interpretation by:

Adam Bradshaw

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Posthuma, R.A., Campion, M.A. (2009). Age Stereotypes in the Workplace: Common Stereotypes, Moderators, and Future Research Directions. Journal of Management, 35(1), 158-188.