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Older Workers Watch Your Head – Breaking Through the Gray Ceiling

Older Workers Watch Your Head – Breaking Through the Gray Ceiling

By Susan Williams

There was a post published in the Washington Post about some of the challenges that older workers may experience if they were planning on working in retirement. In their post they cited a term that I hadn’t heard of before – “the gray ceiling“.

I’m very familiar with the term glass ceiling – specifically as it relates to women and their career advancement but the term gray ceiling was new for me.

As much as we don’t like to admit it, ageism exists in the workplace. Given the supply and demand situation for skilled workers this situation has begun to improve slightly however it still remains a reality that many older workers are having to face.

Even though there are laws in both Canada and the United States that prohibit age discrimination, it can still be an extremely difficult case to prove and often goes unchecked.

So what exactly is the gray ceiling?

I found it difficult to find a specific definition for this term so I went back to what the definition of a glass ceiling was.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defined a glass ceiling as;

“an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions”

I would suggest that the gray ceiling encompasses this for older people but possibly extends even further. I think that it also encompasses hiring of older workers, continued employment for older workers, development of older workers and also advancement of older workers.

Basically anything that could limit opportunities or advancement for older workers in the workplace.

There are many reasons why people may encounter the gray ceiling but many of them are based on poorly constructed stereotypes of aging that just aren’t true. Here are just a few examples;

Older Workers Cost More

If someone has been doing a job much longer than a younger worker they would more than likely have received increases to their salary over time and in turn naturally would cost more than a new hire. As well, older individuals may also have increased benefit costs due to increasing health needs.

When focusing strictly on a financial bottom line, this is possibly true – however…

Companies may fail to realize that when they let go of their older and experienced workers – not only do the individuals leave the organization but also their productivity may be leaving too.

As well, knowledge and experience is not replaced overnight. You just have to take a look at the impact that Captain Sully had as an example of what can happen should someone less experienced be doing a job.

Also Read: The Invisible Value of Experience

So, organizations really need to look beyond only the salary expense. They need to also consider the skills, experience and business relationships that may impact their company. This could cost an organization both time and money to replace and could even be a costlier financial impact.

Limiting Development Opportunities for Older Workers

Companies often don’t want to invest in development for older workers preferring to invest in younger workers who have more “growth potential”.

Again this is short sighted.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median tenure of workers ages 55 to 64 (10.1 years) was more than three times that of workers ages 25 to 34 years (2.8 years).

So, if you were to conduct a return on investment as it relates to development, there is potential that the older worker would provide the larger return to an organization that a younger one given that they may actually stay with that organization and apply those new skills longer.

Older Workers Are Not Technologically Saavy

Again – false.

Did you know that a report published by the AARP, shared that 73% of people aged 50 to 59 and 54% of people aged 60 to 69 all owned smartphones? Not only do they have them, they are also using their smartphones as much as millennials.

And as for using and adapting technology in the workplace, CIO Magazine breaks that aging stereotype with the following research;

“Cloud storage provider Dropbox and Ipsos Mori, a London-based market research firm, surveyed more than 4,000 information workers in the U.S. and Europe about their use of technology in the workplace and found that people 55 and up use 4.9 forms of technology per week, on average — a smidge above the overall average of 4.7 per week. More importantly, the survey also revealed that older workers are less likely than their younger colleagues to find using technology in the workplace stressful. Just one-quarter of the respondents who are 55 or older said that they find tech in the workplace stressful. Meanwhile, 36 percent of the respondents who are 18 to 34 years old — the ones who supposedly grew up with technology — said they find tech in the workplace stressful.”

So Let’s Break This Gray Ceiling

Like so many other stereotypes – many perceptions of older workers are not based on facts. They are created based on preconceived ideas and thinking that can have a dangerous outcome. In this case, they can not only limit an older worker’s opportunities but could even impact their livelihood and future.

We need to break through this gray ceiling and replace this thinking with a new paradigm. Create a new view of the older worker that celebrates and values the knowledge, experience and contributions they can bring.

So let’s bust through this ceiling along with any other ceilings or limits placed on anyone.

After all, no one’s potential should ever be boxed in.

Here’s one of our favourite videos on busting aging stereotypes;

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Susan Williams is the Founder of Booming Encore. Being a Boomer herself, Susan loves to discover and share ways to live life to the fullest. She shares her experiences, observations and opinions on living life after 50 and tries to embrace Booming Encore's philosophy of making sure every day matters.