Has COVID-19 exacerbated bias against older workers? Or could the pandemic actually be helping to bring multiple generations closer together? 

I believe the answer to both questions is yes. Here’s what I’m learning and noticing about ageism in our pandemic era, with some suggestions for what talent leaders can do to combat it.

AARP: Older workers are having a hard time during the pandemic

AARP has compelling research showing how the pandemic has been especially difficult for older workers.

Consider this: In July 2018, 61% of Americans over age 45 reported either seeing or experiencing age discrimination at work, AARP found. In 2020, the survey found 78% experienced the same thing — the highest level since AARP began administering this survey in 2003.

In 2020, 41% of these job seekers said they were asked, either on an application or in a job interview, to provide their birth date, graduation date(s) or other age-related information. (AARP doesn’t have earlier survey results on this topic for comparison.)

“These numbers demonstrate how hard it is for older workers to navigate the workplace, either to get a new job or retain a current position,” says Susan K. Weinstock, Vice President of AARP’s Financial Resilience Programming. 

The current recession has dealt devastating blows to older workers’ job prospects and future retirement security. “Older workers, particularly older women workers and older Black workers, are overrepresented in many frontline and sidelined occupations — those that expose workers to risk of infection and those that are vulnerable to downsizing on account of the pandemic,” Weinstock says.

And from the Great Recession, we’ve learned that displaced older workers can take much longer than younger workers to find a new job. For example, in August 2021, nearly half (49.3%) of job seekers aged 55 and up were long-term unemployed, meaning they’d been out of work for six or more months, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. That’s compared to 34.7% of job seekers aged 16 to 54.

The pandemic has also brought generations together 

At the same time, I think the pandemic has also helped bring generations closer together, at least in some workplaces. 

I believe our shared struggle has for some led to greater empathy and humanity and a willingness to support others, regardless of age or other differences. There are plenty of differences in opinion regarding vaccination and mask mandates for employees, of course. But ultimately, we’re all trying to make a living and stay healthy — which feels even harder now during this period of delta-variant-inspired “pandemic whiplash” (brought on by the ever-changing pandemic information, advice and mandates). 

How to combat age bias now and postpandemic

There are plenty of ways employers can combat ageism in the workplace, both during and after the pandemic. Here are some strategies to create a more age-inclusive workplace. 

  • Emphasize age ranges in your employer branding. Make sure your employer branding represents a spectrum of ages. The goal is for people in underrepresented groups to see themselves in your marketing, advertising, website and candidate interview panels so they can more easily picture themselves working for your organization.
  • Create or support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that embrace all generations. ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups that unite marginalized or underrepresented employees. ERGs can be another way to provide support and a sense of belonging for workers of all ages. I’m particularly proud of Indeed’s All Generations Empowered (AGE) group, which provides opportunities for networking, community outreach and education across generations. 
  • Be transparent about salaries. Some people may be biased against older job seekers because it’s assumed they’ll want larger salaries than younger candidates. That may be true for some, but you should never make blanket assumptions about a group. Some may be more attracted to benefits than salary, while others may be motivated by opportunities to learn and grow.
    • Nevertheless, adding salary ranges to your job postings ensures that the candidates who apply are comfortable with what you're offering.
    • What's more, Indeed research shows that job seekers are 68% more likely to apply for a position when the salary range is in the job description.
  • Look for culture add versus fit. Culture add (which means that a candidate will add new, fresh ideas and experiences to a team) is a more important hiring consideration than culture fit for many reasons, including the ability to build more diverse and innovative teams. Rather than simply “fitting in” with millennial or Gen Z employees, this approach emphasizes older workers’ unique experiences, skills and insights to round out your team’s collective talents. 
  • Consider reverse-mentoring programs. In a reverse-mentoring program, such as the one Microsoft is known for, a senior professional is coached by a younger colleague on such topics as social media and the latest workplace trends. Meanwhile, the younger employee benefits from the senior employee’s wisdom and experience. Both generations can learn from one another and grow, helping counteract age-related bias in both directions. 

Focus on the positive — and don’t stereotype 

There are plenty of benefits to hiring, retaining and promoting older workers. Age diversity is like other forms of diversity: the more viewpoints and experiences you can incorporate in your workforce, the better you will be able to speak to the needs of your diverse customers as a business. 

Besides that, older workers have likely lived through a lot of ups and downs, which can make them resilient and adaptable. They have had many opportunities to see and resolve a wide variety of problems and to learn what their weaknesses and strengths are. They can perform well at tasks that utilize their years of professional knowledge, experience and critical thinking skills and are excited to put their talents to use while learning new, marketable skills.

Of course, all of this varies by individual. A goal for human resources leaders and recruiters is to always challenge our assumptions — whether positive or negative — about others based on their age or anything else. My hope is that the lessons learned from the pandemic will help us do that.