Oldest Boomers Are Increasingly Facing Discrimination in the Workplace

Subtle and often unintentional slights at work, familiar to minorities, now weigh on aging boomers who stay on the job.

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The oldest boomers begin turning 68 next year, when they will exceed full retirement age for even the youngest of their generation. Yet many remain on the job and have pushed back their target date for calling it quits.

About half of the oldest boomers, born in 1946, have left their employer for good, according to a MetLife report. But 21% remain on the job full time and 12% are working part time. They have delayed retirement for reasons that range from hardship to simply wanting to stay in the game longer. On average, they now want to retire at 71; in 2008 the target retirement age was 66.

(MORE: Act Your Age? Not If You Hope to Escape Age Discrimination)

As the oldest boomers blaze the trail into an extended working life, increasingly they are experiencing classic age discrimination. One in five workers between 45 and 74 say they have been turned down for a job because of age, AARP reports. About one in 10 say they were passed up for a promotion, laid off or denied access to career development because of their age.

Even those oldest boomers not held back professionally because of age may experience something called microaggressions, which are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group,” according to research out of Columbia University.

These same indignities can be age related, according to researchers at the Sloan Center on Aging. Often, the younger workers responsible for a subtle snub or dismissive look aren’t even aware of the slight. Yet terms like “geezer” and “gramps” in the context of a work function “affect older workers in the same way that they do members of racial minorities, eroding self-esteem,” write the Sloan Center researchers.

“Our findings suggest that negative attitudes toward late-career workers do in fact affect these workers’ engagement with their jobs and ultimately their mental health,” the researchers write, adding that this takes enough of a toll on their productivity that employers should pay attention and weed out the microaggressions for the good of the company as well as the older employees.

One suggestion is to redesign jobs in ways that clarify the significance of an older employee’s tasks and offer older employees more autonomy and flexibility. Older workers have legal options when it comes to overt age discrimination, which is on the rise. But microaggressions aren’t so easy to answer.

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