Has ageism impacted you – yet? Learn what ageism is, the nuances of how it affects us, and most importantly, three actionable strategies to combat it. Andrea highlights the importance of maintaining a strong personal brand, avoiding age-related details, and the opportunity to control your narrative by addressing age directly 

 

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AGEISM RESOURCES


TRANSCRIPT

Recently when I was on stage giving a keynote for an audience of women in the banking industry, I mentioned my age.

Someone asked me an insightful question regarding a topic that I’ve recently changed my opinion on. I thought about it for a moment, and then I turned to the audience, and declared: “I’m 54 years old. And I’m still learning!” I paused and looked around. I distinctly remember noticing many encouraging smiles and nods from the audience. Interesting. Then later, several people came up to me and explicitly mentioned how impressed they were that I mentioned my age. Wow.

The subtext was clear. People rarely publicly declare the taboo topic of their age. Particularly, when they’re OLD.

After this recent experience, declaring my age in front of an audience, I decided to do some research and thinking about ageism. Up until now, as I’ve been preparing for this episode, I haven’t given ageism it much thought. Perhaps I’m lucky because I’m a healthy 54-year-old. Also, I run my own show. I’m responsible for creating the culture at talk about talk where ageism is definitely not tolerated. But not everybody is so fortunate. Consider those aged 50 or 60+ who are on the job market.

Recently, I met such a job seeker. Let’s call her Carla. Carla is a 57-year-old Caucasian female who’s experienced ageism multiple times in her job search. Here is Carla:

One cannot prove that ageism is the problem or speak to the elephant in the room if one cannot get anywhere near being in the room. Try getting past an algorithm over age 40 these days and even getting an interview. #ageismonpaper #digitalageism has us out of the running long before any now possible interview.

Recruiters wont bring us in, because we’re not a “cultural fit.” If we do manage to get an interview, the person interviewing us is generally 10, 15 or even 20 years younger. Even if things went as well as possible, they will not hire you knowing you, will be taking direction from them or a similarly aged peer. Even if you’re more than willing to be a junior, you were dismissed on site before the interview started. They’re not comfortable with that scenario.

My recent conversation with Carla is just one of many that I’ve had with clients about ageism – Along with racism, sexism, and the other isms, I feel like Ageism is being mentioned more and more lately. Is it just me because I’m old? Maybe. In conversations with clients, they ask me things like:

  • Should I try to look younger?
  • Should I try to talk younger? What words do the young folk use?
  • Should I erase the years off my résumé and LinkedIn profile?

Whether you’re young, old or somewhere in between, whether you’re looking for a new job, or whether you’re the CEO running your firm and responsible for your firm’s culture, ageism is an important topic for all of us to be conscious of – whether it’s your experience being affected by ageism, or perhaps you’re being ageist yourself.

Let’s talk AGEISM.

Welcome to Talk About Talk podcast episode 160. In this episode, we’re talking AGEISM – What ageism is, how it affects us, AND I’m going to highlight three strategies for you to employ if you think you may be a victim of ageism, if you believe you may be negatively impacted by your age.

This is an important topic, whether you are a victim of ageism, whether you’re an ally for others, or whether you yourself might be ageist.

Of course, as humans, we’re constantly judging and evaluating each other. People look at how you’re dressed, your posture, your tone of voice, your words… we make judgments, sometimes based on negative stereotypes that may result in discriminatory behaviors. We talk about the isms: including, but not limited to your height, your race, your gender, your sex, and, of course your age.

Ageism is an interesting ism. Typically, when we think about age ism, we think about discrimination against older people. But as you’re about to learn, ageism also affects folks who are quote unquote too young. So, if you think about our lifespan, we typically start out as too young, and then,if we’re lucky enough, we end up being too old. I suppose that’s the beautiful irony of ageism. Ultimately the folks who are being ageist may very well end up being victimized by ageism as they too grow older. It’s poetic justice.

Before we go any further, let me introduce myself. In case we haven’t met, my name is Dr. Andrea Wojnicki. Please just call me Andrea. Yes, I’m 54 years old. I’m an executive communication coach at talk about talk, where I coach ambitious executives to improve their communication skills so they can communicate with confidence, clarity and establish credibility.

Recently, my team and I re-launched the whole TalkAboutTalk.com website. I hope you’ll check it out. Its talkabouttalk.com. You’ll find lots of resources there. Here’s something new: At the bottom of the homepage there are all sorts of free tipsheets and checklists that you can download to help you with your communication skills. Yes, it’s free. You’ll also find information on the website about my coaching, speaking and workshops, and the email newsletter.  That newsletter is your chance to get communication coaching from me every two weeks. Sound good? Please signup at talkabouttalk.com.

If you’ve been listening to the Talk About Talk podcast, you might know that while I cover all of the communication skills you’d expect, like confidence and listening and storytelling, I’m mildly obsessed with the topic of personal branding and establishing your ideal professional identity. It’s a fundamental assumption of my executive coaching practice that we can shape and mold our professional identity. Certainly, we need to be authentic, but we have the opportunity to control the narrative around our respective personal brands. In my experience coaching thousands of executives, when we develop our personal brands in a disciplined and strategic way, we can get a lot of traction in terms of our career progression and our satisfaction.

Are you wondering why I’m sharing this with you? Why the rant about personal branding? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how this topic of personal branding fits with age and ageism.

Simply put, Age is one of the many many dimensions of your brand. And it’s one that you have absolutely no control over, at least in terms of your chronological age – that is, the amount of time lapsed since you were born.

Many of the elements in our respective personal brands you CAN control, at least to some extent. Consider your leadership style, your communication effectiveness, your work ethic, and how you “show up.”

That said, there are dimensions of our personal brands where you have little or no choice in how you show up. Consider your childhood circumstances, your race, your geography (where you grew up and maybe even where you live now – sometimes we have very little choice in these things). And yes, your age is an element of your personal brand.

Even if you don’t talk about your age. Even if you don’t flaunt it. Even if you don’t stand on stage in front of a big audience, and declare, I am 54 years old, your age is still one element of your personal brand and your professional identity. So it’s well worth your time to understand what ageism is, how it can affect you, and what you can do about it.

Have you ever had any of these experiences?

  • Someone told you that, “You look good – for your age”? 
  • Someone mentioned, “I can’t believe you’re 54 years old!”? 
  • Or – when you look around your firm or your industry, you notice that the prime, high-visibility assignments are being awarded to younger folks as opposed to those with valuable experience. 
  • Or – like Carla, whom you heard from a few minutes ago, you were outright denied a job or promotion because of your age? 

If you’re listening from outside of Canada, you may not have heard about the story of journalist Lisa LaFlamme’s experience. I’ll leave a link to her story in the shownotes. 

Laflamme was a highly regarded national news anchor here in Canada at CTV news. She was well respected with over 35 years of journalism experience. In the year 2022 she decided to let her dyed dark brown hair go to its natural gray. In August 2022 she was let go. She was terminated. Coincidence? 

The backlash was instant and strong, at the grassroots level, and at the formal institutional level. CTV’s parent company Bell media went on record, saying that terminating LaFlamme’s contract after 35 years was a business decision, and they wanted to move her anchor role in a “different direction.”

Then the head of bell media took a leave of absence. And there was a formal open letter that was signed by well-known and highly reputed politicians, business people, journalists, celebrities, and more, all supporting Lisa LaFlamme and criticizing BellMedia and CTV.

Notably, this open letter also identified that sexism played a role in the termination of LaFlammes contract. More on the intersectionality of ageism and sexism in a minute.

My point in sharing Lisa LaFlamme’s high profile story here is to illustrate that ageism is on our cultural radar. It’s talked about in the media.

Lets start by defining ageism.

The term ageism was coined in the late 1960s by American physician and gerontologist Robert Neil Butler. Yes, gerontologist, as in geriatric. At the time, Dr. Butler was referring to the treatment of elderly people. Since then, this AGEISM term has evolved to also describe discrimination against younger people as well. 

Dr. Butler defined AGEISM as a combination of three things:

  1. negative attitudes towards old age and the aging process
  2. discriminatory practices against older people
  3. institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people

This three-point definition is important. It can help you identify ageism when you see it. This three-point definition also reminds me of Ron Tite’s “think do say” framework from our last episode. Ageism includes what people think, do & say.. The thinking is the negative attitudes, the doing is the discriminatory practices, and the saying is the institutionalization of these practises and policies.

Research identifies several types of ageism. Note these are not mutually exclusive. But they can be helpful in thinking about ageism that you experience or witness: 

  • Explicit and implicit ageism depending on whether you are consciously aware of it
  • Benevolent ageism where someone holds patronizing beliefs about age. Think: “Sweet Old Lady.”
  • Hostile ageism whch is having “openly aggressive beliefs about age, such as that teenagers are violent or dangerous”
  • Interpersonal ageism, which, as you might imagine, occurs in social situations
  • Internalized ageism which is focused your beliefs about yourself. (Yes, you can be ageist about yourself.  And if this is you – just stop!)
  • Institutional ageism which shows up in policies and actions

That’s a lot of ageism.

Yes, ageism is institutionalized. It’s culturally ingrained.  According to the World Health Organization:

 “Children as young as 4 years old become aware of their culture’s age stereotypes. From that age onwards they internalize and use these stereotypes to guide their feelings and behavior towards people of different ages.”

So Ageism includes negative attitudes, discriminatory practises, and institutionalized practices and policies by people of all ages, against people we think are too old and/or who are too young.  

This reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a very impressive, 40-something female CEO of a large apparel brand that I’m quite certain you’ve heard of. She told me that when she people ask her what she does, of course she tells them she’s the CEO. Almost like clockwork, she tells me, they say, “Oh, CEO of the Canadian division?” “No. I’m a global CEO.” Typically that’s followed by a moment of silence. Lol. But it’s really not funny. Depending on these people, their response might be to be even more critical of her because of her young age.

Men also experience ageism in terms of being “ -“ too young. One of my good friends was promoted to the role of CEO of a big global company when he was in his 40s. He told me that he was conscious of the fact that many people believed he was too young and we joked about putting white paint in his hair so at least he’d have a few grey hairs.

So yes, ageism is real, even for the young folk. At the beginning of this episode, I shared a story where I was delivering a Keynote to an audience of women in the financial industry  when I mentioned my age. After my Keynote, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with an ambitious middle level manager who works in the corporate head office of a big bank. This woman is noticeably attractive. She’s undeniably very pretty. She told me that she believes her appearance hinders her career progression. But she wasn’t commenting on her attractiveness. She was commenting on the fact that she looks younger than she really is. She constantly wonders whether she’s being held back because people believe she’s too young. She even brought it up with her manager.

You might be thinking oh, poor thing! LOL. But her concern is real and shared by others. Last year there was a fantastic article by Jessica Grose in the New York Times, addressing this intersectionality between ageism and sexism, aptly called, The Hour Between Babe and Hag. The title says it all doesn’t it? As a woman in the workplace, you’re either considered a young babe or an old hag. There’s only one hour between the two.

The author quotes social gerontologist Tetyana Shippee, who reports the following:

 “From ages 18 to 30, women report age discrimination due to being too young. From your mid-30s to your mid-40s is a safe time. Then age discrimination starts to pick up again after age 50, and it’s especially high after 55-plus.”

Did you get that? From ages 18 to 30 you’re too young. From your mid 30s to your mid 40s it’s relatively safe. Then discrimination starts to pick up again after age 50 and especially after 55.

(Yikes, I’m in trouble.)

This is further compounded for women from racialized or underrepresented communities. Again, that lovely intersectionality term.

Recent academic research also validates how ageism negatively impacts women more so than men. I included links in the show otes to various articles, including one academic article that concluded that online images reinforce gender stereotypes that contribute to BOTH ageism AND sexism, against women in particular.

Another academic article confirmed the structural bias within healthcare that negatively impacts older female patients, in particular.

Even the United Nations weighs in here. The 2023-24 United Nations human development report concluded that older women face compounded advantages relative to other groups based on ageism, and sexism.

That all said, there is ageism affecting men in the workplace, too. For them, this ageism generally happens much later in their careers, not during their prime earning years.

Phew.  This is all so heavy. Male or female, young or old,  if you’re experiencing ageism in your career, I hope this information at least validates your experience. 

So far in this episode, we’ve defined ageism in terms of negative attitudes, discriminatory, behaviors, and institutionalized policies and practices, remember, think do say, and I’ve provided you with plenty of examples, and we’ve talked about how ageism interacts with sexism. The question is, what do you do about it? Especially when you’re the victim.

This is where it gets good. I’ve got some ideas for you for

How to Deal with Ageism

If you’re concerned about age-based discrimination, my advice for you is threefold:

(1)A strong personal brand goes a long way.

 When you introduce yourself with confidence and mention your unique strengths, you focus everyone’s attention on the value you provide. For example, you might highlight your specific experiences, your expertise, your credentials, your leadership style, and/or your successes. Make these the salient points.

Without a strong personal brand and inspiring self introduction, it’s possible that people will think about you as that older woman or that older guy. If you’ve done the work to develop your personal brand, and you introduced yourself with confidence, highlighting your strengths, your passions, and your super power, suddenly people might be thinking about you as “ a senior banking executive with unparallelled people skills,” or “the senior HR executive with a proven track record of solving problems, big and small.”

So that’s my first suggestion for you, if you’re experiencing ageism. Develop your unique personal brand.

My second suggestion in combating ageism is:

(2) Avoid providing details that allow people to “do the math.“ 

As I’m saying, this, I realize this one’s gonna get me in trouble. If you’re proud of your age and you’re not concerned about ageism, then skip this one. Go ahead and tell them you graduated from high school in 1988.

Do you remember Carla, who you heard from at the beginning of the episode talking about #DigitalAgeism? Here she is, talking about filling in the application form for a new job as a 57-year-old.

We’re also often asked to put when we went to school on our major. For those of us decades into our careers, that is generally irrelevant. But it sure gives the algorithm what they need to discredit us at the get go. 

Ugh.  I feel your pain, Carla.

So do you have to include the years you graduated from college or the years you were in your first jobs?

I get asked this question all the time. My suggestion is this. If you’re filling out a form where these questions about years are asked, then yes of course you need to include these dates. Otherwise, avoid providing details that allow people to do the math.

This is about purposefully not reminding people of your age, without compromising your authenticity. It’s not that you’re being untruthful. Rather, you’re choosing to not remind them that you graduated from University in the previous century.

Let me give you a few examples:

  1. If you talk about your children at work, you don’t need to mention their ages. (e.g. “My daughter…” as opposed to “My 35 year old daughter…”)
  2. You don’t need to highlight the decade when you grew up (e.g. “When I was a teenager…” as opposed to “Back in the 70’s when I was a teenager…”) 
  3. Yes, you can delete the year you earned your undergraduate degree. Most employers don’t care what year you graduated, it’s more about the credential. (That said, They do want to see how many years you worked in various jobs.) And of course, if you’re filling out a form you need to include this information.

Onto the third and last suggestion for how to deal with ageism, we’ve covered focussing on other elements of your unique personal brand, and we’ve covered avoiding providing details that allow people to do the math. My third suggestion is this.

(3)Sometimes calling out the elephant in the room can be a smart strategy. 

This is a perfect example of what I call, “controlling the narrative.” Instead of avoiding the topic of your age, try, addressing your age, head on in a way that strategically controls the narrative.

For example, you could say: 

  • “My extensive experience over the decades provides me with a catalog of relevant case studies that I can draw on…”
  • “I might be the only person in the room with gray hair, but I’m also the only person who’s done this before. I have so many insights and experiences to share with the team…” or –
  • “I’m 54 and I’m still learning!”

Speaking of 54, that reminds me of a fantastic book that I read that I strongly recommend, particularly if you’re north of 50 years. It’s called “From strength to strength” by Arthur C. Brooks. The subtitle is Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.

In this book, Brooks describes how many of us, including me, including him, focus over the years on ambition and productivity.  Then at some point, probably earlier than you think, you hit an inflection point in terms of your cognitive abilities.  They call it cognitive decline. Brooks advoicates jumping off that productivity and ambition curve to a new output, focused on sharing your  wisdom. 

When I read Brooks prescription for happiness and success, I felt very validated, as my career has evolved from being an ambitious and productive brand manager, then academic, and now shifting to a new track where I’m sharing my wisdom as a coach.

Question, how can you shift your focus to sharing your wisdom and expertise?

Before you reject Arthur Brooks’ advice, because you think it might not be relevant, consider what opportunities you may have in your current industry or your current function where you can share your wisdom. I share this idea with some of my clients in other industries. It’s something to consider.  Again, I will leave a link to the book “from strength to strength” in the show notes.

And that’s it for this episode.

I hope these insights about ageism will encourage you to question your own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. And certainly to call out others when they might be ageist. I also encourage you if you are the victim of ageism to consider my three suggestions:

  1. Develop a strong personal  brand. Focus peoples attention on your strengths.
  2. Avoid reminding people of your age. Unless you’re filling out a form, that explicitly asked for years and dates, you don’t need to prompt people to do the math to figure out how old you are.
  3. Sometimes calling out the elephant in the room can be a smart strategy. Reference your age and control the narrative. Turn your experience into a positive.

If you enjoyed this podcast episode, I do hope you’ll share with your friends, young and old, who could also benefit from some insights about ageism. You could also leave me a review on whatever podcast app you’re using. These reviews make a nbbigg difference in the podcast algorithm, and I appreciate it.

Don’t forget to check out the recently re-launched talkabouttalk.com website and to sign up signup for my free communication coaching newsletter. 

Thanks again for listening.  And talk soon!