The Costs of Age-related “Microaggressions”
and What Employers Can Do to Avoid Them

Posted Wednesday, May 15th, 2013| Comments (5) rule
About Jackie James  About Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes About Elyssa Besen
Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Director of Research
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Elyssa Besen, PhD
Research Assistant
Sloan Center on Aging & Work

Around the world, older adults are exposed to negative stereotypes and, sometimes, outright discrimination. These vulnerabilities are especially worrisome today, given older workers’ increasing demand for employment. While most negative stereotypes of older workers have been challenged—in some cases refuted—by empirical data, research also shows that they are nevertheless common, especially among younger workers.

According to Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues at Columbia University (2007), microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.” Although perpetrators are often unaware of what they are doing, these “subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones” are blows to the self-esteem and/or well-being of their targets.

We assert that microaggressions can also be age-related. When misperceptions about the capabilities of older workers take the form of microaggressions, they affect older workers in the same way that they do members of racial minorities, eroding self-esteem.

“Old man,” “gramps,” “geezer,” and “old bag”: these and other epithets, experienced day after day, are degrading to older adults. Cumulatively, they are likely to have a negative impact on the well-being and the work-related outcomes of older workers.

Using data from the Sloan Center’s Age & Generations study, we examined internal (core self evaluation) and external (job conditions) predictors of employees’ mental health and work engagement scores. Our findings suggest that negative attitudes toward late-career workers do in fact affect these workers’ engagement with their jobs and ultimately their mental health.

Fortunately, our findings suggest that certain job conditions shield older workers from the ill effects of microaggressions. Moreover, our findings point employers to steps they can take to promote work environments that protect older employees from microaggressions.

First, employers can gather information formally or informally from employees to assess the prevalence of microaggressions in the workplace. Next, they can train supervisors and organize team-building experiences to foster an ethic of inclusion. Some employers might also find that job redesign to create a better fit with the needs and preferences of older workers is an effective approach. Indeed, the authors of one study reported that redesigning jobs in ways that increase the variety of an employee’s skills, clarify the significance of an employee’s tasks, and offer an employee more autonomy can greatly enhance the quality of the employee’s work.

Decades of research suggest that negative stereotypes of older workers are entrenched. It may take a long time to replace assumptions about older workers’ limitations with recognition of the assets that older workers bring to the workplace. In the meantime, buffering employees from age-related microaggressions is not only good for morale but also good for business. When older workers maintain their engagement in and enjoyment of jobs they find meaningful, they are more likely to stay with a company, minimizing the expense of recruitment and training and sustaining the company’s pool of knowledge and talent.

5 responses to “The Costs of Age-related “Microaggressions”
and What Employers Can Do to Avoid Them”

  1. Mila Seo says:

    All of us are human beings and deserve to be treated fairly and or equally and as much as possible we must try to diminish this discrimination because it would just create nothing but bad impacts whether on the company or on the employees. Moreover, there must be a programs or an event which encourages socialization to all.

  2. Helen Dennis says:

    Kudos on a terrific piece. The term “microagressions” is perfect in describing the subtle ageism that occurs in the work place. Since ageism remains as a socially acceptable “ism,” building awareness is key. Although the concept of inclusion is extremely important, it is easy for age to get lost in the conversation. Training to influence attitudes and decisions can be effective. I was fortunate to direct a project in the late 1980’s at USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center that involved a corporate training curriculum tested with 100 employers. The traing had impact on managers’ attititudes and decisions. Clearly there’s more work to be done.

  3. Jackie James says:

    I appreciate this discussion and wonder if people might share examples of these experiences of “microaggressions.”

  4. Debbie McGill says:

    I think it would be interesting to look at the tendency of older workers to buy into the language of microagressions and use it to describe themselves. I know I’ve done this, and I’ve heard it from my peers, too–especially when we’re discussing our frustrations with user-unfriendly electronic devices!

  5. Julie Allstrom says:

    Many thanks for calling attention to the similarities between racial microaggressions and ageism. These incidents occur not only in the workplace but in all aspects of our daily life, each act reinforcing perceptions that we often accept without question. Indeed, as Dr. Sue’s research (2010) demonstrates, microaggressions “saturate the broader society with cues that signal devaluation of social group identities.”

    In our culture, two kinds of cues that devalue older people are the insulting messages of many birthday cards and the frenzied marketing of “anti-aging” products. Both exploit our common fears of growing old by exaggerating the importance of gray hair or misplaced car keys. Our personal happiness and our engagement with work, even our ability to remain employed, are affected when we accept these invalidations.

    Dr. Sue points out that to eliminate microaggressions we must first make them visible. The suggested steps for employers in this blog are congruent with that advice. Even so, we cannot wait for every employer to conduct surveys, develop training programs and redesign jobs to improve working environments for older employees. We all must take responsibility now, in the workplace and in our personal interactions, to discredit ageist stereotypes and claim the value of experience and maturity.