Harvard Business Journal Offers Tip On Combatting Age Discrimination: Dye Your Hair

A March 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review blog offers hair dye as a legitimate tool for combatting age discrimination.

Huh? Is the war on age discrimination over?  Did we lose?  Or, is this just smart, practical advice in a world that sometimes prizes youth over everything else?

It’s not the only advice the Harvard business blog recommends for avoiding unfavorable workplace treatment based on age.  Some other tips:

  1. Stand up straight, because poor posture sends a message of aging

  2. Get physically active, and move quickly.  Moving slowly around the workplace says “older.”

  3. Wear contemporary clothes. Be aware of outfits that look like they’re from a prior decade.

The author of the article (who previously worked for the Nickelodeon network, which is part of the equally youth-obsessed MTV Networks) says age discrimination is rampant in many workplaces, quoting statistics from one organization that says the number of workers 55 and older who are unemployed has increased 331% over the last ten years. That makes sense to me.  While race and gender discrimination have historically made up the bulk of my work, age claims are growing in frequency.  And those coming to see me aren’t just those people in their 60’s and 70’s.  A large number are in their late 40’s and early 50’s.  Even employee in their early 40’s can suffer job loss due to age discrimination.

In my experience, employees in jobs that require physical labor (think, construction, deliveries, law enforcement), or in service jobs (e.g., grocery or retail stores, restaurants and the like), or in businesses in a “hip” industry are more likely to experience age discrimination first, usually in their early 40’s.  In other words, workers aged 40 and up suffer most when physical ability or physical appearance are perceived as important workplace traits.  This stereotyping drives employment decisions even when the 40+ employee is vastly better skilled.  Since the age of an employee is rarely a bona fide consideration, such decisions are almost always illegal.

 I have encountered job candidates in their 60’s who were unemployable.   Despite powerful resumes, they couldn’t get hired in entry-level positions because of the belief they would leave the moment a better-paying job surfaced.  And they couldn’t get hired into advanced positions because of the belief that they wouldn’t be in the job long before retiring.  My own experience in representing employees matches the statistical data. Life for the over-50 job seeker can be a rough one indeed.  So what are the signs that you may be the victim of age discrimination?  Several  come to mind:

  1. You lost out on a job opportunity (new hire, promotion, transfer) to someone years younger, and who is vastly less-qualified than you.

  2. You were laid off due to “budget cuts” or “restructuring, and then learned someone much younger moved into your spot, and that you were the only employee laid off.  Or, you may notice that nearly everyone laid off was well above the age of 40.

  3. You’re in a deferred retirement program (like the State of Florida’s DROP program) and you’re laid off or fired for paper-thin reasons.  Some employers think that if you’re near the end of your career anyway, you’re not going to suffer as much as someone who’s just starting out.

  4. You’re still on the job, but you’re hearing comments that the company needs “fresh blood,” or you’re being asked when you plan to retire.

  5. You’re the target of “friendly” jokes about your appearance, your familiarity with the Internet/Skype/Twitter/Facebook, or your ability to learn and use new computer programs.  Remarks like these may be harmless – or they may reflect an unspoken view that you (and your skill set) are past their prime.  Subtle comments are more likely than outright age-related insults, but they can signal the same thoughts.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as old, because whether you’re “old” or not depends on your age relative to others.  Someone 50 is very young to someone 70.  Someone 30 is very old to someone 20.  It’s why your exposure to age discrimination may depend as much on the ages of those around you as it does on your own age.

When my son was seven years old, the hair stylist cutting his hair asked if he thought she was old.   Without pausing, he said “yes” (and I immediately feared for his hair).  When she asked him how old he thought she was, he said “14.”  She was actually 19.  He explained that because she had two numbers in her perceived age (14) as opposed to his (7), he thought that was just an astonishingly old age.  I laughed at the simplicity of his reasoning, and stereotyping.  Despite his youth, he’d formulated his own concept about who’s old and who’s not. I seriously doubt the stylist, at 19,  had ever considered herself old.

But someone did.

Categories: Age Discrimination, Uncategorized

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