Age discrimination in the work force – what is it?

Age discrimination or ageism means stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. It can include practices which exclude older people, such as denying them access to services, perhaps to medical procedures, employment or employment conditions, such as long-service leave. Institutional practices and policies that result in discrimination are called institutional ageism. Compulsory retirement policies are an example. There can also be prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the ageing process in general – assumptions that all older people have certain characteristics, such as feeble-mindedness or grumpiness. Younger people can also suffer from age discrimination. Teenagers and children may have their ideas or opinions ignored because they are seen as too young or it may be assumed that they should behave in certain ways or not do things because of their age. We have lower age limits on a range of activities, including driving, marriage and voting. How do you respond to recent calls for children to be given the vote?

The workplace provides most common grounds for complaints of age discrimination, which predominantly affects older rather than younger groups (although the latter are certainly not exempt). Here I am going to talk about discrimination against older people as workers.

Age discrimination is often based on myths and stereotypes about older people and older workers which can be easily refuted, such as the one that older people cannot learn new skills or are too set in their ways. Age discrimination pervades the entire employment relationship. It occurs in relation to promotion, job allocation, salary differentials and access to training and staff benefits. Even where there is no compulsory retirement, pressure may be put on older workers to leave. General attitudes, as well as inter-staff action such as bullying and exclusion from social activities, can also disadvantage older workers. Age discrimination is noted particularly in recruitment, especially when older workers seek to re-enter the workforce after redundancy or an absence for other reasons, such as caring responsibilities. Recruitment agencies have been shown to apply age biases in deciding who to put forward for jobs. Collusion between recruitment agencies, human resource staff and managers may encourage discrimination. Are agencies simply offering what they feel the employers want?

Why does age discrimination happen?
We are often tempted to use stereotypes and generalisations about the attributes, skills and abilities of particular groups as a way of coping with the complexity of the world. But they become discriminatory if they are used as the basis of human resources practices within firms. Age is often used as a quick and cheap proxy when selecting staff. Preferences for youth, in the business world and in society in general, undervalue older people. Remuneration systems based on seniority may make older workers expensive (and ready “for the chop’). Then there is the tendency for managers to recruit people like themselves and, as managers get younger – you can supply the rest. A 2013 report by OGC Consulting asked New Zealanders “what do you think are the key causes of age related discrimination?” In addition to those just listed they suggested lack of understanding between the generations; younger workers being unsure how to manage older workers; and a lack of exposure to or experience with older workers. There are intergenerational attitudes here which we need to look at.
Is age discrimination in the workplace a problem?
In recent research among employers, business groups and government agencies , I asked whether they thought that age discrimination was problem in the workplace. Most of my respondents agreed, it could be, but suggested that it may be hidden and even be unrecognised. There were some perceptive comments: 1

“Sometimes people don’t know they are doing it. They employ people like themselves who they are comfortable with”.

If discrimination is not overt then it is much more difficult to combat.

“Workplaces may be unwelcoming to older people, but not on purpose, they may also be unwelcoming to Māori, Pacific Islanders or women.”

This suggests that ageism in the workplace is an extension of attitudes in the wider population. Negative attitudes may reflect outdated views.

“It is unfair to today’s older workers to judge them by the historical behaviour of older people. That’s dumb stuff – today’s 60 is 45 in the past.”

“(Employers) remember retirement at the age of 60 and have an unconscious bias about investment in older workers.”

To be fair, it is sometimes unclear whether there is real age discrimination or whether decisions made by employers simply reflect real drawbacks of specific older workers, related to their physical and mental capacities, outdated skills and lack of ability with new technology.

“The problem is when you can’t do things because of your age. The individual might see this as discrimination.”

“Stereotypes exist for a reason, as a result of people’s negative experiences.”

How can we disentangle unthinking preconceptions about older people from genuine performance concerns?

Next time I will look at what can be done about age discrimination.

Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

[1] I am drawing on my findings from a research project “Making Active Ageing a Reality”, undertaken through the University of Waikato and funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.


About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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