“How old are you?” asked the voice on the other end of the phone.
I had been privileged all my life to never have been exposed to any form of discrimination – until recently, until this phonecall when I experienced age discrimination firsthand.
It all began when I signed up for an online course and within 24 hours received a phonecall from someone claiming to represent the company I had just paid. He enquired “how’s it going and are you enjoying the course?” I responded that I had not yet started as I had a business to run and needed to clear that deck first. His response shocked me when he inferred that I sounded like someone lacking motivation therefore disqualifying me for any coaching. I explained that I had not yet started the course so how could I possibly know if I needed mentoring or coaching, nor had I requested it. However that wasn’t what this guy wanted to hear. He went on to inform me that only a few motivated individuals would be considered for coaching and I probably wasn’t one of them so good-bye and hung up. I was offended and stunned.
It got worse
As I made my way through the modules of the course, I got bogged down with one technical exercise which lacked adequate instruction. I appealed to support for assistance and although they offered help, there was so much more information I needed in order to proceed. So I asked about one-on-one mentoring and received a voicemail message from guess who? I ignored the voicemail given my first interaction with this individual until he called again one week later asking me if I was now in a different place. I explained I had made it through 6 weeks of instruction in 4, but was bogged down on one exercise on which all else hinged and felt I needed some help. His response to me was the question: “How old are you?” Taken aback, I asked what that had to do with the price of apples – to which he replied that I would not qualify for additional help (something for which you do pay extra), wished me luck, said good-bye and hung up! Again! Age discrimination – my first time had just occurred.
Ageism is a thing
I believe the bottom line to my story is that someone made an assumption that because computer technology is something a younger generation is weaned on, that you must be in a senior demographic if you encounter issues and experience difficulty. You must be slow. You must be unteachable. You must be dense. We’re okay taking your money but you’re on your addled own if you get stuck. I’m still smarting from this exchange and wondering how prevalent age discrimination is within our society – in spite of anti-discrimination laws.
We think of ageism as something affecting only people over 40 but millennials can also become the brunt of it: they’re too young to know anything, too unmotivated to accomplish much, too undisciplined to succeed. The target of age discrimination is irrelevant because the effects are negative no matter what the demographic. Ageism is uninformed, hurtful and sadly the people who are targeted think less of themselves.
No one wants to be seen as irrelevant
Older people have made their contribution: they’ve worked most of their lives, paid their taxes, raised their children, volunteered, written letters to the editor, engaged in society and most are still contributing. Many have served their country. Plus 1 in 5 seniors over the age of 65 still works.
Nevertheless, 80/50/30 is a known formula in corporate Human Resources departments. Translated it means if you are an employee over the age of 50, making $80K or more per year and have been contributing to said company for 30+ years, you’re expendable and probably won’t survive the next round of cuts.
For the 91% who claim to have experienced some form of ageism there are other consequences. Being treated as irrelevant, useless and uninteresting contributes to a feeling of resignation and depression – where the only thing to anticipate is decline, deterioration and death. Allowing prejudice to define them, some seniors give up on living; they don’t look after their bodies, decline socializing or volunteering and resign themselves to living alone even if they would like to find a companion.
Skills learned over time have value
Experience should be valued. Who wouldn’t prefer to be treated by a senior, knowledgeable physician when we have a health issue – or would you prefer the services of an intern? When legal problems present themselves, who wants an articling student vs someone with a QC after their name? And who would prefer employing a junior accountant to a senior partner when you can have tax issues to sort out. Youth does not hold all the cards.
Stereotypes should not define us
Discrimination doesn’t end with race, or sex – it extends to our age. We must not allow ourselves to be defined by others’ prejudices. It’s cruel, uninformed and it’s ignorant. There are so many seniors living busy lives, still working, volunteering, taking classes, sharing their knowledge, living independently and healthfully – whose life experience can be drawn upon to teach others: artists create until they can’t, doctors practise medicine until they themselves want to rest; lawyers and accountants practise into their senior years sharing a wealth of experience with their clients. Bottom line is we should be judged on our merits, experience and what we can contribute as a result of all that experience – rather than upon our birthdate.
While there are laws against age discrimination in the workplace in both Canada and the US, and while these laws might provide some protection for existing longtime employees, by the same token some employers might avoid hiring older workers altogether in anticipation of being accused of discriminatory practises should they want to terminate that older employee.
While anti-ageist laws might protect people in their job, they really do nothing to actually change societal attitudes about the older individual as evidenced by my experience where I was judged to be over the hill because I was having technical difficulties with software – on a computer!
Who hasn’t been challenged by a software program first time out where there is scant explanation as to how to use it properly? The only thing this experience did for me was damage the brand this company is attempting to build. And if I were discriminatory, I could indulge in age discrimination too by implying that the owners of this company were obviously too young and too inexperienced to recognize the damaging perception being created, that they do not want to sell to an older demographic – which is not a great business model.
Are you one of the 91% over the age of 40 who has experienced age discrimination? How did it make you feel?