Ageism is a fact of life today, mostly felt by older generations, but in reverse by some members of younger generations, too.
Alice Fisher, who worked in New York State Sen. Liz Krueger’s office for eight years, got an inside view of the anxieties and struggles Krueger’s older constituents faced on issues of housing, health care, quality of life and work. Many of these, Fisher found, were rooted in ageist attitudes.
Concluding that the only way to change the culture and its impact on society and work was to start a movement, Fisher (who is a boomer), founded The Radical Age Movement, a national grassroots effort challenging traditional notions of aging. Through inter-generational collaboration, The Radical Age Movement aims to confront and eradicate age discrimination and its impact on older adults in all areas of cultural, professional, legal and community life.
I’m president of Practice Development Counsel (which helps organizations and individuals solve intergenerational challenges) and recently spoke with Fisher on how ageism is hindering boomers at work as well as what could help alleviate the employment problems this generation faces.
Here are highlights from our conversation:
Offer advice from your work and life experience as suggestions, not absolutes. Understand that Gen X’ers want to make their own decisions.
— Alice Fisher, founder of Radical Age Movement
Phyllis Weiss Haserot: The Radical Age Movement focuses on many aspects of ageism. What are the three most prevalent ways you see ageism hindering boomers with regard to work?
Alice Fisher: First, many older boomers particularly feel rejected and betrayed. In the workforce, they may not be encouraged to go to training to learn new skills or be expected to ‘get’ technology.
They are not expected to stay at a new job, so there is a preconceived bias in interviews — though far from the reality. The statistics prove that boomers stay considerably longer in their jobs than Generations Y and X.
Many boomers also receive comments like: ‘When are you going to retire?’
And it is presumed that people over 50 are likely to have physical limitations, while many are very fit.
Secondly, some Millennials (or Gen Y’ers) incorrectly assume that boomers are competing with them for entry level or lower- to middle-management jobs that boomers may be willing to do if they want to continue working.
And thirdly, boomers are not being valued for all the life experience they bring to work challenges and working relationships.
I’ve found that many boomers have no concept of themselves as “old” and are sensitive to language suggesting aging. Their employers and colleagues shouldn’t call them ‘old,’ ‘elderly’ or even ‘senior’ unless they are referring to status in an organization.
Fisher: True. When I developed Sen. Krueger’s Roundtable for Seniors (a monthly community meeting to discuss issues of housing, health, safety, employment and other issues affecting older generations), it attracted few attendees. But when we changed the name to Roundtable for Boomers and Seniors, the room overflowed. They related to boomer-generation status but not to ‘senior.’
I think the tension between boomers and Millennials is not as great a challenge to solve as between the older boomers and both the younger boomers (age 51 to 55) and older Gen X’ers — those around age 45 to 50. These people may, in reality, experience boomers as competitors for jobs or roadblocks to promotions. How can older boomers get the support of the 45- to-55 age group?
Fisher: One of the keys is listening and asking for their help and ideas.
Don’t act as if you know everything and reject attempts to try new approaches. Work to establish a non-threatening, trusting relationship.
Offer advice from your work and life experience as suggestions, not absolutes. Understand that Gen X’ers want to make their own decisions, but convey that you want to help. Establish a culture in which it is OK for an older, lower-positioned employee to speak up with helpful advice.
Boomers need to be sensitive to Gen X’s frustration about their long wait to get a chance to lead caused by the older generation’s desire to keep working.
Fisher: And X’ers should have incentive to treat boomers well, so when the boomers are preparing to leave, they’ll transfer their vital knowledge and will be willing to be called on for advice or information when needed after they do leave.
Given the large number of boomer legislators who seem to be ignoring the plight of older workers, what might persuade them to back an anti-ageism agenda?
Fisher: Maybe legislators are in denial of their own aging. We have to keep pushing them relentlessly until legislative changes are passed.
On the state level, I pushed for ‘Aid In Dying’ legislation, which would give people who are terminal, and near the end of their lives, the right to choose the way they would like to die.
On the federal level, Medicare needs to be rewritten to reflect today’s demographics and reality. For example, Medicare does not pay for hearing aids, dental work or long-term care.
Boomers vote in disproportionately large numbers. We have to make noise about equity for all ages. That’s what I hope to do with the Radical Age Movement — to leverage the power of age.