Around the world, older adults are exposed to negative stereotypes and, sometimes, outright discrimination. These vulnerabilities are especially worrisome today, given older workers’ increasing demand for employment. While most negative stereotypes of older workers have been challenged—in some cases refuted—by empirical data, research also shows that they are nevertheless common, especially among younger workers.
According to Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues at Columbia University (2007), microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.” Although perpetrators are often unaware of what they are doing, these “subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones” are blows to the self-esteem and/or well-being of their targets.
We assert that microaggressions can also be age-related. When misperceptions about the capabilities of older workers take the form of microaggressions, they affect older workers in the same way that they do members of racial minorities, eroding self-esteem.
“Old man,” “gramps,” “geezer,” and “old bag”: these and other epithets, experienced day after day, are degrading to older adults. Cumulatively, they are likely to have a negative impact on the well-being and the work-related outcomes of older workers.
Using data from the Sloan Center’s Age & Generations study, we examined internal (core self evaluation) and external (job conditions) predictors of employees’ mental health and work engagement scores. Our findings suggest that negative attitudes toward late-career workers do in fact affect these workers’ engagement with their jobs and ultimately their mental health.
Fortunately, our findings suggest that certain job conditions shield older workers from the ill effects of microaggressions. Moreover, our findings point employers to steps they can take to promote work environments that protect older employees from microaggressions.
First, employers can gather information formally or informally from employees to assess the prevalence of microaggressions in the workplace. Next, they can train supervisors and organize team-building experiences to foster an ethic of inclusion. Some employers might also find that job redesign to create a better fit with the needs and preferences of older workers is an effective approach. Indeed, the authors of one study reported that redesigning jobs in ways that increase the variety of an employee’s skills, clarify the significance of an employee’s tasks, and offer an employee more autonomy can greatly enhance the quality of the employee’s work.
Decades of research suggest that negative stereotypes of older workers are entrenched. It may take a long time to replace assumptions about older workers’ limitations with recognition of the assets that older workers bring to the workplace. In the meantime, buffering employees from age-related microaggressions is not only good for morale but also good for business. When older workers maintain their engagement in and enjoyment of jobs they find meaningful, they are more likely to stay with a company, minimizing the expense of recruitment and training and sustaining the company’s pool of knowledge and talent.