15 Sneaky Signs of Ageism in the Workplace (And What To Do About It)

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Discover the subtle workplace cues that might be holding you back.
Updated Aug. 12, 2023
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An older woman in the office

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From assumptions about technical ability to missed happy hour invites, employees discriminate against older workers in subtle and obvious ways.

These offenses aren’t always intentional, but they hurt older employees in their ability to get ahead financially. Companies also miss out on the experience and perspective these workers bring to the table.

Here are 15 signs of ageism in the workplace to watch for and what you can do about them.

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Lack of learning opportunities

Monkey Business/Adobe Senior student raising hand in class

Younger employees may be given ample opportunities to attend conferences, enroll in courses, and pursue other learning outside of their normal work. 

Not giving these same opportunities to older workers could be ageism. Worse, it prevents them from bringing their skills and years of experience to new opportunities.

Social snubs

fizkes/Adobe Woman in meeting

If networking and critical office politics are happening outside of working hours at happy hours, lunches, and other social settings, then you should have the opportunity to be there.

But, sometimes, it’s assumed older workers either don’t want to attend or wouldn’t fit in with the younger crowd. These social snubs are isolating to those workers and are another example of ageism. 

Try to invite everyone to social and networking events and schedule more non-happy hour or bar-related gatherings. Leave it up to them whether they feel comfortable attending.

Not being put in front of clients

artem/Adobe Tired senior man using laptop

When a company repeatedly puts their younger employees in front of clients to present work done by the entire team while skipping over the more senior members, this could be an example of ageism as they try to present a younger face. 

Let the employees who did the work present it and allow teams to have multiple members present to clients.

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Targeted layoffs

Viacheslav Yakobchuk/Adobe Employer firing senior employee at office

Broad layoffs should include employees across a random variety of ages. If all employees affected by layoffs fall into the same older age demographic, it’s likely a situation of targeted ageism. 

The company could be trying to bring in younger workers or hire them at a lower rate while letting workers go who cost more because of their decades of experience.

Coded words

peopleimages.com/Adobe Confused man looking at laptop

When an employer discusses two potential hires and refers to a younger candidate as having a "fresh perspective," that’s likely systemic age discrimination.

The employer may also note that they’re afraid the older candidate doesn’t have the "right energy," reinforcing their prejudice.

Nuances in job descriptions

saltdium/Adobe Woman working from home on laptop

A job description that says a company is looking for a digitally native candidate essentially says they’re looking for a young hire without using those exact words. And that's an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offense.

Screening assumptions

offsuperphoto/Adobe Senior businessman talking to young employee

Looking at a candidate’s graduation year or whether their email address is hotmail.com or gmail.com before looking at whether their experience is relevant is often unintentional ageism.

Try to avoid considering or even looking at these markers during the applicant screening process. If you’re applying for a job, leave off your graduation year or only include the most relevant recent roles.

Passed over promotions

fizkes/Adobe Senior woman afraid at interview lobby

When an older employee is passed over for a promotion they’re qualified for instead of a younger employee who may have more years to continue climbing the corporate ladder, that’s an example of age discrimination.

Supervisors could be making assumptions over a worker’s plan to retire and assuming they don’t want to rise to the next challenge — but that’s not their call to make. Have open discussions about career goals with all employees, regardless of age.

Buyouts

slexp880/Adobe Senior filling out form

Companies sometimes offer large buyouts to their older employees to encourage them to leave rather than be put in a position where their age discrimination could be called into question. 

This is essentially forced retirement at a certain age, which is not legal in most professions. There may be exceptions in certain professions, like pilots.

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Technology assumptions

Halfpoint/Adobe Father staring son showing generation gap

Technology is constantly changing, and employers may assume their older workers can’t keep up with the latest software or social media. Rather than take the time to train them, they give opportunities to the younger workers, which is an ageism offense.

Give everyone a chance to learn, and if you’re an older employee, try to stay on top of the latest relevant technology in your field.

Demotions

Prostock-studio/Adobe Man on call on laptop

Even when older employees dodge layoffs or buyouts, they can sometimes be given demotions that limit their role and impact within the company. 

This could be in an attempt to remove them from high-paying roles and replace them with a younger worker willing to do the job for less.

Slowly taking away responsibilities

Fabio/Adobe Annoyed senior man using laptop

While demotions are an obvious way of cutting a worker’s responsibilities, sometimes it’s more gradual. A client is assigned to a younger colleague, and pitch decks are passed to other employees. 

Eventually, all the assignments that made the older worker feel valuable have been redistributed, not because of their abilities or performance. It’s due to ageism.

Jokes about age

luckybusiness/Adobe Coworkers having fun at lunch

Some instances of ageism aren’t so subtle. When other colleagues joke about the old man in the office or whether computers existed when someone started working, these are hurtful and meant to separate the older from the younger workers. 

If you witness this happening, say something. It’s particularly powerful when a younger peer points it out.

Passed over for big assignments

fizkes/Adobe Frustrated senior woman using smartphone

New challenges and big assignments keep the workplace exciting, but when a supervisor repeatedly passes over older employees and hands the most interesting work off to younger employees, it's an act of ageism. 

They could be assuming older employees don’t have the hustle or energy to keep up.

Unfair criticism

pathdoc/Adobe Businessmen having feud at work

It’s not uncommon to see older workers criticized for mistakes or not moving fast enough while younger employees get away with the same offenses. 

It’s allowed to slide as a rookie mistake or a learning curve for a younger employee, while those who are older don’t get the same grace — even if it’s a new project for both.

Bottom line

fizkes/Adobe Businessman getting tired while using laptop

To fight ageism in the workplace, first, do what’s within your control. Continue to keep up with learning, technology, and education — which can boost your bank account too. 

However, if you believe you are the victim of ageism in the workplace, don’t hesitate to keep a log of the offenses occurring and prepare your case to take to a supervisor or human resources. 

Remember, ageism is a serious matter, and it’s on us to prevent it from continuing to occur in the office and beyond.

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Author Details

Heather Bien Heather Bien is a writer covering personal finance and budgeting and how those relate to life, travel, entertaining, and more. With bylines that include The Spruce, Apartment Therapy, and mindbodygreen, she's covered everything from tax tips for freelancers to budgeting hacks to how to get the highest ROI out of your home renovations.

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