Age discrimination is one of the least discussed forms of discrimination in society. And yet it often happens. Especially in the work environment. According to a WHO report of 18 March 2021, prejudices about young and old are a significant obstacle to the smooth functioning of the labour market. This report emphasises that recruiters also play a negative role in this. According to the WHO, discrimination based on age is “a plague on society”. The prejudices are strongest in more ‘individualistic’ countries such as the US, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa and Australia. This phenomenon stems from the belief that an employee can no longer adapt after a certain age. Learning new things or solving problems is also no longer possible at a certain age. These stereotypes are rooted in the rather negative view our society has of ageing. Countries where the bias towards the elderly is much less strong, strive for “group harmony,” according to a 2020 report. These countries include China, Korea, Japan, India and Brazil.

Too young – too old: hidden prejudices

How old or young someone is should not be a reason for unequal treatment at work or among employment conditions. This also applies in the event of dismissal or promotion, or during a recruitment and selection procedure. “Age discrimination mainly targets the elderly,” explains Martine Lagacé, a professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Ottawa and author of the book “Representations and discourse on ageing: the hidden face of ageism?” At work, the elderly are quickly accused of being ‘old’, with all the associated shortcomings: adaptability and reduced cognitive ability, not keeping up with technology, health problems, and inertia. Research on age discrimination in the workplace shows that older people are often denied promotions. Other expressions of discrimination  are: making jokes about age and the elderly are often assigned less interesting projects. Company managers sometimes assume that older employees no longer want to learn or are just counting down to retirement. But being young also brings stereotypes: lack of experience and discipline, arrogance, less loyalty to the employer, and young people are too lazy to work. “What people may not know is that age discrimination can have just as negative consequences as racism, sexism or homophobia,” said Lagacé.

Psychological consequences

The phenomenon of age discrimination mainly affects older people in the workplace (but also their daily lives). About 58% of employees believe that age discrimination starts when they reach 50: people over 50 are less likely to be hired than their 20-year-old colleagues. With every victim of age discrimination, the reaction is the same: anger, detachment, and ultimately the desire to retire as soon as possible. Ageism has long-term effects on victims. Feelings of betrayal, helplessness, loneliness, greater financial insecurity and loss of self-esteem. This cocktail of emotions leads to psychological problems that can even lead to depression. If the last years of work are poorly perceived, an overlapping effect arises. This affects the quality of life in the first years after retirement.

Age discrimination costs billions

Ageism leads to additional healthcare expenditures according to the same WHO report from 2021. This has far-reaching consequences for our economies and societies. The bill runs into the billions. A US study from 2020 showed that negative age stereotypes cost $63 billion annually in additional healthcare expenditures. A 2018 PwC study revealed that the Netherlands is missing 90 billion euros in the gross national product because the work potential of the elderly is not fully utilized. An Australian study calculates that if 5% of people over the age of 55 were working, that would generate $48 billion in economic profit annually.

Inclusive collaboration: age mix in the workplace is productive

The best workplace is one with a multi-generational workforce. This creates a culture of inclusion and diversity. The question is: how do you approach this as a company?

– communicate that age diversity in the workforce pays off. Educate your team members about age discrimination and clarify some stereotypes about employees of different ages, for example by running campaigns.

-confrontation and awareness: make employees in charge of recruitment and selection aware of their own prejudices and stereotypes. And see if things change.

– the best workplace is one with a multi-generational workforce, where employees encourage each other. Break down generational boundaries. This creates a culture of inclusion and diversity.

-technology creates opportunities! Create an HR policy without bias, which provides training for both young and old.

– do not indicate during a recruitment process that you are looking for ‘energetic, fresh or flexible’ employees. Subtle hints like this discourage older workers from applying.


L’âgisme: une discrimination des travailleurs peu connue, mais répandue – Vie au travail:—vie-au-travail#:~:text=Accueil-,L’%C3%A2gisme%3A%20une%20discrimination%20des%20travailleurs%20peu%20connue%2C,mais%20r%C3%A9pandue%20%2D%20Vie%20au%20travail&text=En%20approchant%20l’%C3%A2ge%20de,s’appelle%20l’%C3%A2gisme

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