The pandemic has turned the nation into a ‘community of carers’ particularly supporting the elderly and the vulnerable. Undoubtedly this is right thing to do, but is the current focus on older people perhaps:
i. reinforcing some of the more negative stereotypes about older people
ii. hard-wiring attitudes, language and behaviours around the older generation
iii. detrimental to developing inclusive cultures in our working environments
Skewed perception of ageing
We already know that there is a skewed perception of ageing:
1. ‘The elderly are a burden’
Many view older people as a burden on society, people that disproportionately require public service in the form of healthcare or social services and therefore a drain on resources. It’s very feasible that these attitudes are being further hardwired given older people are considered to be more susceptible to the virus.
2. ‘All older people are vulnerable’
We define a category of people as ‘old’ or ‘elderly’ and therefore ‘vulnerable’ simply by their date of birth or that they are retired or have grandchildren. There has been a mini backlash from some older people who argue that old age should not, in and of itself, be used as a marker of vulnerability. I assume this is because these automatic associations, also known as stereotypes, can pigeon-hole older people and place a judgement on their abilities and potential.
3. ‘Growing old is sad’
With older people perceived to be at a greater risk at the present time, it is possible that the stigma associated with growing old is being reinforced. We know that many younger people view older adulthood as a negative experience. For many young children, turning 40 equates to being old! and the prospect of growing old is not necessarily a positive one.
Reinforcing ageist attitudes
In many ways, the current narrative is reinforcing our biases about older people (whatever age you believe someone is regarded as ‘old’!). We unconsciously assimilate the information around us and internalise it.
This societal conditioning has for decades given rise to ageist prejudices in our workplaces. Ageism is still considered to be an ‘okay’ prejudice - it’s okay to make general assumptions about older people simply based on their age (e.g., slow to adapt, take time off sick……..); it’s okay to make casual jokes about people turning a certain age for comedic value!
Older people should not be viewed as a homogeneous group. They have an incredibly varied skill set that can add value to an organisation. This is particularly important to recognise in the current climate as we make decisions about furloughs, redundancies etc and the risk of making biased and subjective decisions in a stressful and pressurised environment is heightened.
In an era where we are ageing as a society and many are choosing to stay on at work for longer, organisations need to consider how these often hidden biases can inhibit inclusivity.
And at a time where multi generations are working alongside each, we need to consider ways that we can deepen inter-generational connectivity.