Reverse Ageism in the Workplace

Some young workers get laid off before they even start climbing the ladder.
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Sometimes it's hard to tell if differences in pay and responsibilities between older and younger workers are justified, that is, based on experience, or if it's a case of prejudice against younger workers. Reverse ageism can be hard to prove, but there is evidence that, as companies retrench, they tend to lay off a disproportionate number of young workers. In 2012, for example, 13.3 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. labor market were unemployed, compared to 7.6 percent of 30- to 34-year-olds and 6.2 percent of 40- to 44-year-olds, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment levels for women in the 20- to 24-year-old range was slightly lower at 12.1 percent, but higher among 30- to 34-year-olds at 7.8 percent and among 40- to 44-year-olds at 6.4 percent.

Legal Considerations

Ageism is illegal, but only if it’s directed against employees who are 40 or older. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits discrimination against over-40 workers in hiring, firing, compensation, job duties or training. The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990 amended the ADEA to address the issue of benefits for older workers, and requires that companies provide data regarding the ages of those terminated and those retained when they conduct layoffs. Since workers under the age of 40 are exempt from these protections, the risk of laying them off is much lower than that involved in laying off employees 40 and older.

Emotional Considerations

Human compassion is admirable, but it can lead to unequal treatment. Managers faced with layoff decisions tend to consider the personal impact on employees as they choose whom to cut, notes Professor Mitchell Marks of San Francisco State University’s college of business. Older workers are more likely to have a family they support, so it’s harder to overcome the guilt of sacking them. By contrast, it’s easier to lay off a younger worker who has no dependents and could, in a pinch, return home to live with Mom and Dad, or a young woman whose spouse is a well-paid doctor or attorney, for example.

The Whine Factor

It’s less cost efficient to lay off younger workers because they generally earn less, but some managers are tempted because of age stereotypes. Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking and an expert on young workers, notes that managers perceive Gen Y’ers -- born between 1977 and 2002 -- as high maintenance because they want flexible work hours, higher compensation and more responsibility at junior levels. In a tight labor market, managers are more likely to hold on to employees who are willing to work long hours and do what they are asked without complaining, says Tulgan.

Combatting Stereotypes

To become less susceptible to layoffs and more likely to advance, make yourself indispensable. Cross-train in a different field so that you can perform more than one function. Volunteer to do the tasks that no one else wants to do. If your company offers a certification program, take advantage of it. An employer is more likely to promote and less likely to lay off an employee in whom she has made an investment. Above all, demonstrate that you are an enthusiastic worker who is willing to go the extra mile.

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