One of the most poignant and telling moments in Dan Lyons' memoir of his year as an employee in a startup is when the young receptionist looks up at the newly hired 52-year-old Lyons and says she's glad they're finally hiring older people. Ouch.

As a middle-aged worker in a Silicon Valley startup myself, it often dawns on me that I work side by side with people who are exactly half my age (some even younger). But what would happen if I were suddenly laid off and had to start a job search at this point? A few friends who have experienced that exact situation say it's a terrible blow to the ego to go job hunting these days — particularly once you're past 40.

"We have a youth culture in this country, where younger is better than older," says Thomas Osborne, senior attorney with the AARP Foundation.

And nowhere is it clearer than in technology companies throughout the country. Case in point: Facebook is facing two age discrimination lawsuits at the time of this writing. In fact, both lawsuits point to a speech that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave at the Y Combinator Startup School event back in 2007, as an example of the company's inherent age bias:

“I want to stress the importance of being young and technical... Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30?…I don’t know…Young people just have simpler lives.”

As Dan Lyons writes in an op-ed piece in Observer: "Making hiring and firing decisions based on age is illegal, but age discrimination is rampant in the tech industry, and everyone knows it, and everyone seems to accept it."

Age Bias: Against the Law

Age discrimination, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), involves treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age.

In the U.S., the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is a 50-year-old law that forbids age discrimination against people who are aged 40 and above.

This discriminatory behavior can include:

  • Not getting hired due to age
  • Being denied a promotion or a pay raise due to age
  • Being denied training or access to professional development opportunities due to age
  • Being fired or laid off due to age

Age Discrimination: Some Numbers

To find out how widespread this problem is, take a look at the statistics.

The EEOC received approximately 1,000 claims the first full year it was tasked with enforcing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. These days though, it receives approximately 20,000 claims a year.

According to a 2013 AARP survey, 64% of workers (nearly 2 in every 3 people) say they experienced age discrimination or saw examples of it in their workplaces.

That same study has 16% of older workers citing "age discrimination" as a top reason for their lack of confidence in landing a new job.

Then a 2016 study conducted by economists from the University of California, Irvine found concrete proof that older workers find it more difficult to get hired. They sent out 40,000 resumes for thousands of real jobs. For any given position, triplets of identical resumes were sent out, the only difference being age: one for younger, one for middle-aged, and one for older. See the results in the graph:

 Age Discrimination is Everybody's Problem
Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

Their study came to the conclusion that:

  • There is age discrimination in hiring, no matter the gender
  • Those nearing the age of retirement experience more age discrimination than middle-aged candidates
  • Women experience more age discrimination than men

Tackling Age Discrimination Head-On

So, yes, people struggle with ageism in the workplace on a daily basis.

But what actions can you take, as a leader in your company, to prevent this type of discrimination? And what can your organization do to promote your brand as a place open to talents of all ages?

Some tips:

01. Change the words of your job descriptions

Delete those references to ideal candidates having "8 to 10 years experience" or "2 to 3 years out of college." (These are actual guidelines from the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company that resulted in a lawsuit when a job recruiter blew the whistle on the company's hiring practices.)

In the same manner, avoid descriptors like "digital native," "adaptability," or "high energy" that tend to lead towards biased results.

Instead, focus on qualifications over the trap of simply looking for a "culture fit." What will the candidate be doing at their desk once hired? What skills will they need to move projects forward?

02. Provide age discrimination training

Confront the problem by making people aware that these biases exist. In the same way you hold sexual discrimination training modules, have the company take on on ageism. An ounce of prevention is better than any potential lawsuit, after all.

03. Provide tech/tools training for all

Never assume people know how to use your tool stack. Offer training on all the technology and tools you use to get work done in your company. Make training mandatory for new hires. But also, give people a chance to brush up on best practices and useful tips and tricks regarding their work tools.

If there are people resistant to learning new things, employ change management methods to get them onboard.

04. Carve out (new) career paths

Do your workers have a clear career path to follow? Iron that out especially as your startup grows and your company matures.

In the case of older workers whose careers may have hit a dead end, create new paths and expand that org chart. Find a way for these workers to keep developing professionally and to keep progressing as they stay longer in your organization.

05. Practice empathy

As a leader, be there to lift up your people. One of the simplest ways to do this is to extend a helping hand.

If a more mature worker seems to be struggling with performance, then talk with them. Focus on the facts (that their performance is slipping, that results are late, etc.) but also ask how you can help turn this around. It might turn out that they may simply need to master the new tool that was introduced.

By offering help, you boost morale, and may avoid discrimination claims down the road.

Ageism is Everyone's Problem

The long and short of it is: age discrimination is very real for large numbers of the working population in any country. The onus is on you, as a leader, to be aware of it and to propagate a company culture that destigmatizes age in your organization.

Because one day when you near the age of retirement yourself, you will hope there is work out there that matches your hard-won wisdom and highly specialized skills.

Here's Twitter user Steve Mitchell (@ingostudios) with parting words of wisdom:

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