Whether you are planning a work reinvention, or just want to keep doing your current job for a few more decades, you need to be aware of the dangers of stereotyping and discrimination.

Age discrimination is very real, and much needs to be done in this country to improve things. It is particularly pernicious when we ourselves perpetuate it in our attitudes to ourselves and to our working lives. One subtle but powerful impact of stereotyping and discrimination occurs when we start to buy into these negative stereotypes and take them as fact. Say you read that older people aren’t good at technology and believe it, so you decide not to enrol in a digital marketing course. Or you are told that you are ‘too old’ for a new exercise program at your gym, so you don’t even give it a go. This is known as ‘stereotype threat’ and can have real consequences for your confidence and your actions.

Just over half of non-employed people say that age-attributed job search exclusion affects their desire to work. They become ‘discouraged workers’ and may take themselves off job seeker lists, even though they still want to work.

They start to believe their own bad press. In a study, older adults who were reminded of negative age descriptors (such as ‘confused’ or ‘decrepit’) showed poorer memory and reduced walking ability compared to those who were reminded of positive stereotypes (such as ‘guide’ or ‘wise’).  Even small reminders such as these have an impact, and if you buy into the stereotype over time, it can have a significant and cumulative negative effect.

Research from 2012 suggests many older workers retire around the age of 65 because social norms say that’s the right age to retire. In other words, they assume that’s what they are supposed to do without necessarily considering their personal desires or capacities.

Even those who don’t believe the stereotyping worry they are being judged and found wanting. This has a measurable impact on their job satisfaction, commitment, engagement and retirement intentions – and will inevitably impact their productivity.

The answer is obviously the promotion of accurate, more positive stereotypes of older workers, that focus on their experience, wisdom, dependability and commitment. There are signs that the media are starting to portray more realistic pictures and stories about older people, at least some of the time.

But don’t wait for our culture to change – decide right now that you will look beyond stereotypes, that you will seek out stories about positive role models, that you will never say ‘senior moment’ again – and you will create your own map to a future that excites you for decades to come.

Joanna Maxwell


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