How Can We Fight Ageism in the Workplace?


Ageism is often subtle: a job posting might ask that applicants be “digital natives,” a category that excludes those who didn’t grow up with computers. Digital applications may require graduation or birth dates. Or, someone may simply say that they’re looking for “a recent college graduate because they haven’t developed bad habits yet,” as one job seeker was told. 

Ageism, the practice of discriminating against people based on their age, has been illegal in the workplace since the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) was passed. The law, which stipulates that businesses can’t discriminate against workers 40 and older, celebrated its 50th birthday last year. 

Despite the law’s long life, it’s no secret that ageism is still much too common in the workplace.  

In 2017 alone, the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 18,376 complaints regarding age discrimination, a number that most likely does not capture the full scope of the problem. A 2013 study from the AARP found that approximately two-thirds of older workers aged 45 to 74 say they have seen or experienced discrimination in the workforce.  

These experiences are not only demeaning for job seekers; they hurt businesses, too. When businesses dismiss older workers, they’re dismissing a good portion of the workforce: as AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins notes in her recent LinkedIn Articleby 2030, one in five Americans will be over the age of 65 and many will be working. In Colorado alone, nearly a quarter of workers (23%) will be over the age of 55.  

Ageism deprives job seekers of work in which they would excel and denies businesses the top talent they need to stay competitive. Everybody loses. 

“The over 50 population of job seekers have to manage stereotypes that they are not adaptable to change and that they are not seeking long-term employment,” said Heather Seiden, an Employment Case Manager at Jewish Family Service of Colorado in Denver. “The biggest misconception job seekers over 50 face from both employers and service providers is that they need to be treated differently than anyone else.” 


Heather (pictured right) is one of 28 career coaches participating in the Governor’s Coaching Corps (GCC), an eight-month leadership and skills development program for career coaches created by Skillful and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. She and four other GCC participants are on an action team that is identifying best practices to serve people over the age of 50 and people with disabilities. At the end of the program, they will present their findings to state policymakers for potential adoption. 

“As we interview service providers and leaders in this field,” Heather said, “a common theme we are discovering is the theme of equality and the recommendation to treat these people the same as we treat all other job seekers, while holding them to the same standards. To effectively integrate this population of job seekers into the workplace, they should be treated according to their abilities…These job seekers are more than the sum of their years alive...they are intelligent individuals with opinions and skills and problem-solving abilities. They don’t detract from organizations; they add value.” 

How can we eliminate ageism from the workforce? 

Ageism won’t go away without a concerted effort from employers, workforce boards, policy makers, in addition to the programs like the ones the Governors Coaching Corps members are exploring. That being said, there are some steps employers can take to eliminate bias in their hiring and promotion processes through skills-based practices, which emphasize a candidates’ skills above all else.  

Many employers have also thought of novel ways to engage older adults: a software company in Manhatten, Return Path, offers 20-week “returnships” to experienced workers with a gap in their resume, and AT&T recently announced a colossal retraining initiative after discovering that nearly half of its employees didn’t have the skills needed to keep the company competitive.  

To learn more about the Governor’s Coaching Corps, check out this short overview video:

If you are a career coach in search of a supportive environment, register for our Coaching Community of Practice, a virtual support network in which career coaches can share resources and best practices as well as participate in educational webinars and calls. If you are a career coach in search of a supportive environment, register for our Coaching Community of Practice, a virtual support network in which career coaches can share resources and best practices as well as participate in educational webinars and calls. If you are interested in learning more about skills-based practices, contact me on LinkedIn or email me at

About Katherine Keegan

Katherine Keegan is a Senior Manager at Skillful. She is an experienced relationship manager who oversees Skillful’s Coaching and Job Seeker Initiatives, which include the Governor’s Coaching Corps and the Coaching Community of Practice. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @KKeegan17.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.