Not that long ago, living to turn 100 was a milestone very few people reached. Now? It’s the new normal. Half of all Americans born in 2007 will easily exceed the century mark. Yet our thoughts (and fears) about what it’s like to be a certain age haven’t quite caught up with our newfound longevity. To reap the full potential of a long life, we’ll need to deal with age bias head-on.
For the first time ever, four generations — traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen X and millennials — are bumping up alongside each other at home and in the workplace. We have plenty to learn from each other — if we can get past the stereotypes that make us want to keep our distance.
Age is the only universal social category we humans share, points out Michael S. North, an assistant professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Unlike gender or race, literally everyone eventually joins every age group if they live long enough,” he says.
So how can we give every generation a seat at the table?
Unconscious biases about age
“The assumptions we make about people can elicit consistent behavior,” says Liz Redford, a consultant at Project Implicit, a nonprofit that studies implicit social cognition. “If you think someone’s boring, you’re going to go in and ask them a boring question, and guess what? They’re going to be boring. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
This same dynamic comes into play with older people, who can be common targets of overblown assumptions. “[Older people] can be stereotyped as warm but incompetent, which motivates people to be nice to them but also keep their distance,” says North. “Or they don’t have a clearly defined role in society, so they’re seen as relatively useless and burdensome.”
Although the majority of older Americans are healthy and working well into their 60s, an unconscious bias persists, North says.
But younger people get misjudged, too.
“At this particular zeitgeist, ageism has enormous consequences.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” a patient once asked Felecia Sumner, a Colquitt, Ga.-based family medicine physician in her 30s. “You look like you just graduated high school.”
While initially offended, Sumner chose to respond to the comments with humor.
“You can catch more bees with honey than vinegar,” says Sumner. And, she adds, “Thankfully, I’ve always been able to prove a doubter wrong regarding my expertise and skill set when given the chance.”
Debunking myths about age in the workplace
“At this particular zeitgeist, ageism has enormous consequences,” says North.
Retirement rates are dropping as many older adults are eager to stay productive or just need the money. At the same time, younger people struggle with high unemployment.
“Fair or not, they see those older people hanging around as taking up space at their expense,” North says.
While this theory may sound plausible, the data don’t support it. In fact the opposite is true, according to severalstudies on the subject. Evidence suggests that greater employment of older persons leads to better outcomes for the young via reduced unemployment, increased employment and a higher wage.
“Some of the stereotypes that come along with seniority in this type of profession are positive — maturity, improved judgment and experience.
But myths persist, and they can lead to harmful stereotypes about older workers.
And one with consequences: Older people exposed to negative age stereotypes experience worse mental and physical health, says Becca Levy, professor of public health and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health. Younger people who buy into them miss out on “valuable interactions and a chance to benefit from age diversity,” Levy says.
As president of Lawternatives, a Chicago consultancy that helps legal professionals rethink their careers, Cheryl Rich Heisler has seen her fair share of older clients who’ve been downsized or burned out and are ready to start over. “Insecure coworkers can make life difficult by leaving an older employee out of the loop, not offering to help or sometimes undermining efforts to succeed,” says Heisler. “They also face negative perceptions like ‘stuck in their ways,’ ‘overpaid,’ and ‘untechnological naysayers.’”
“Luckily, some of the stereotypes that come along with seniority in this type of profession are positive — maturity, improved judgment and experience,” Heisler says. She advises clients to have a plan to learn what they don’t know.
Reality check: Knock back your own bias
The first step to overcoming your age bias? Acknowledging that no matter how woke or wise you are, you have one. Here’s what can help.
Four Ways 20-Somethings Can Kick Unconscious Age Bias
Be mindful. Next time you’re around an older person, pay attention to your initial response. An eye roll? An assumption that they won’t understand, so why bother talking? “Research shows that mindfulness decreases prejudiced behavior,” says Carla Marie Manly, a psychotherapist in Santa Rosa, Calif., who specializes in life transitions. Hone in on how you interact differently with an older person versus someone your own age — then attempt to equalize it.
Learn your triggers. Write down five negative stereotypes you think about people older than you. Then jot down five positive traits. The next time you feel irked by someone older, recalling these positive traits can counteract the reaction, says Jo Weech, founder of the Washington D.C.-based Exemplary Consultants.
Get past someone’s age. Instead of labeling someone as “old,” focus on traits you admire or find interesting. If this requires asking some questions on your part, even better. Suddenly, “that old guy on the third floor” becomes “Bill, who finished the Boston marathon and brews his own IPA.”
Diversify. “If your social circles are not inclusive of diverse people — and I don’t mean just your parents and grandparents — you won’t have multiple opportunities to grow as a person,” says Weech. “Hang out with people who can mentor you in your industry and in life.”
Three Tips for 30-Somethings
Don’t think the worst. Job dissatisfaction rears its head when you’re in your thirties, but don’t assume just because someone more senior comes into your workplace, they want to replace you. “Check your own ego, sense of being threatened, fear of the unknown, and give them a chance,” says Weech. “Have you seen the Robert DeNiro/Anne Hathaway movie, ‘The Intern’? That.”
Model positive behaviors. Younger family members and coworkers look to you for an example, so give them a good one. “For example, ask an older employee for advice on a project or invite an elderly neighbor to dinner,” Manly suggests.
Be creative. Whether you color with your kids or sign up for an improv class, research shows that creative hobbies reduce the tendency to automatically stereotype. It also primes “out of the box” thinking, which makes it easier to keep an open mind about people in a different age bracket.
Four Tips for 40-Somethings:
Tap into your empathy. The ability to understand people’s emotions starts to peak in your forties so put it to good use. Challenge yourself to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes.
Collaborate. At this age, you may have more experience, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still learn from others who are younger. “Collaboration is key to any successful working or personal relationship,” Weech says. “Treat everyone as equal contributors of equal value.”
Own up to your own aging fears. Many people in their 40s start to feel anxious about getting older. “As a result, they’re hyper-focused on their own aging while exhibiting an unconscious fear-induced bias toward the elderly,” says Manly. If you tend to criticize or joke about people your senior, ask yourself: Does your own age have anything to do with it?
Follow in others’ footsteps. Whether you spend time with older family members you admire or seek out TED talks from older role models, “tap into their wisdom and experience to find what aging strategies did or didn’t work for them,” says Manly.
Four Tips for 50-Somethings:
Don’t self-stereotype. No more joking, “Now that I’m over the hill…” or “I’m having a senior moment.” Self-deprecation makes it harder for younger people to identify with you — and for you to feel good about yourself.
Make yourself a priority. The more you’re aware of what scares you about getting older, “the less likely you are to engage in reactive, judgmental ways,” says Manly. Addressing the fears that arewithin your control (like eating well and keeping doctor appointments) will help you stay positive — and healthy.
Resist the urge to always be in charge. “It can take a lot of energy to relate to younger persons whose values don’t mirror those in which you were raised,” says Weech. Still, “don’t always default to either giving tutorials or demanding that things be done a certain way,” she says.
Do you. Focus on the unique skills you can offer. Your experience is a precious resource. “Managers often see older employees as their most reliable, conscientious, emotionally stable and loyal,” says North.
Getting along with people of all different ages is an opportunity — not a burden. And no matter your age now, remember: that will change.
Article produced in partnership with AARP. Click here to learn more.