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COVID-19 and Ageism

Our current global health crisis has brought to light another global issue: Ageism. According to the World Health Organization, ageism is a global concern. Happening in countries all over the world, this discrimination is both prevalent and harmful.

The term “Ageism” was coined in 1969 by Robert Butler, to better define the discrimination that happens when elderly people are stereotyped. Since the 1960s, Ageism has been associated with the discrimination of this age group, often occurring within the workplace; however, the negative effects of ageism go beyond the workplace. The dangers of ageism discrimination are plentiful: whether older people are unable to find adequate employment, receive proper healthcare, or avoid being victims depend on how people view and care for the elderly. 

A Global Issue

From its onset this coronavirus has been found to disproportionately impact adults older than 60 years. As early as February 17, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention shared statistics on the confirmed cases and death rates of their population. Individuals 60+ years of age accounted for only 31% of confirmed cases but 81% of deaths. Yet, the global response to protect their elderly populations was not quick and effective enough to reduce the spread. Few countries enforced precautions addressing elderly, with the U.S. only issuing a state of emergency on March 13th, which called for nation-wide social distancing. This came three months after the outbreak in China, and over 7 weeks after the first confirmed case in the U.S. Additionally, though the government was aware that the virus had a meaningful and disproportionate impact to elder populations no specific action was taken to close down or isolate senior living facilities, or provide them preferential accommodations for essential daily activities (e.g. grocery shopping pharmacy visits, etc.) 

Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, stated that from past pandemic research, children are the drivers of infection within societies. Which brought to light a thought: what if COVID-19 affected children at a higher rate than other age demographics? Would we have acted faster? Would we have closed schools, closed non-essential services earlier and cared for this demographic at risk more effectively?

The global response to the coronavirus has demonstrated inherit ageism at best, and at worst conscious bias towards our elderly population. 

The New Normal 

As a 41-year-old employee and entrepreneur, COVID-19 has driven me to self-reflect on Ageism in the workplace. The coronavirus has already started to create a new normal for our 55+ years of age workforce. Take for example my close friend, a 59-year-old elementary school teacher who has never worked remotely, now facing the need for online instruction. They are facing a steep learning curve in order to effectively engage elementary kids through a virtual platform. This new normal of virtual instruction reinforces the fear that younger educators will have a disproportionate advantage in the workforce. As stated above, our society holds inherit ageism, and now with a new reality that demands quick adaptation to new technology, processes, and strategies, our senior citizen workforce may be entering a bias workforce. As highlighted, I believe senior citizens will face two main things in the workforce as we adapt to a new business as usual:

1.    Layoffs: As organizations continue to lose revenue with no end in sight, we can only anticipate downsizing. Mitchell Plastics of Charlestown, Ind., is one of many companies who has recently announced temporary layoffs, totaling 360 employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

2.    Technology: As organizations, institutions, and entrepreneurs begin to focus on being virtual ready, employees will have to up-skill on technology without minimal training and short timelines.

Together these two realities, will foster one of the most freighting aspects of layoffs for older employees: applying for an opportunity against someone who is 10+ years younger in an environment of increased ageism. Insurance provider Hiscox conducted a recent study on ageism and found 21% of people over the age of 40 experienced age discrimination in the workplace and has impacted the career trajectory of 80% of people over the age of 40. During this same study, 60% of all workers said they never received formal age-based discrimination training in recent years.

We have witnessed this with other discrimination in the workplace: racism, homophobia, and gender bias. The first step is acknowledging that we all have biases. This step is normally the hardest. It requires us to turn our focus away from others and look internally. What is found can be hard to accept. The second step is having the courage to self-correct those internal biases. Finally, we need to be an ally and interrupt bias when we see it.

As a colleague, manager, or member of society, we can all reverse discrimination and prejudice against the elderly. We need to consider ageism during the recruitment process, project assignment, and recognition practices. Updating processes to ensure ageism discrimination is eliminated should become a core part of all our new normal as we recover from COVID-19.

Written by: Dr. Terrence Underwood and Xochitl Ledesma

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