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Age Discrimination in the Workplace: Three Myths About Older Workers, Debunked

Americans now enjoy longer, healthier lives, and a growing number continue working long past traditional retirement age. Workers 65 and older are projected to have the fastest growth in the labor force by 2026; those 55 and older filled almost half of new jobs in 2018.

Working longer brings benefits from income to social engagement. However, age discrimination is a major problem that prevents some workers from realizing their goals — or pushes them out entirely. This also means employers miss out on an experienced talent pool.

In short, it’s time to rethink what it means to be “old.” To learn more, we spoke with Dr. Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. An expert in human resources, public policy and talent management, Cappelli offers important insights to help identify — and debunk — some common myths about hiring older workers.

Age discrimination is common, but baseless

Whether in the workplace or elsewhere, age discrimination is a pervasive problem. “By some measures [it is] more common than other forms of discrimination,” says Cappelli. In fact, up to two-thirds of workers age 45 and older report experiencing it at some point.

“[D]iscrimination has common roots in fear of differences,” Cappelli explains. “Myths persist when we don’t see evidence, and we haven’t had [a contradictory] experience ourselves.”

For example, employers may assume older workers will only accept high salaries. “If you are an employer who won’t interview older people because you don’t think they will accept the pay, then you don’t change your view,” says Cappelli. “But if you think about it, applicants know what the jobs pay and they wouldn’t apply if it was impossible for them.”

These myths create widespread challenges, with the result that older workers may face bias when applying for jobs or feel that they are being pressured into premature retirement. Meanwhile, pushing older workers out of sight perpetuates the negative stereotype that they don’t belong.

It’s bad business to let mistaken beliefs get in the way of a great hire, because “older workers have all the things employers say they want” such as strong interpersonal skills and job experience that doesn’t require training, says Cappelli.

Myth #1: Older workers are counting the days until retirement

According to Cappelli, the biggest myth about older employees is that they’re “burnt out” and can’t wait to stop working. “They can be [burnt out], of course,” he says. “And people who have been doing the same thing for a very long time are likely to be bored by it. That’s true for workers who aren’t older, as well.” In fact, many older workers are eager to extend their careers — and not just for the money.

In “Managing the Older Worker,” which Cappelli co-authored with Georgetown University professor Bill Novelli, they find that these workers want what we all want: friendly colleagues, respect and an opportunity to use their skills for a worthwhile project. They also find working keeps them mentally and…

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