Ageism: The Biggest Area of Bias

Ageism is a critical dimension of diversity. And, also the biggest area of bias.

In my talks about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, we often liken diversity to gender, race, and/or ethnicity.  We like what our brain thinks it can see.  These is indeed a distinction between visible and invisible diversity.  And, we are generally highly biased to prefer those similar to us.

Most people do not think of age as a part of diversity.  It is something we can see, yet we dismiss it as less important to our identities of race, gender, and/or ethnicity.  It is a problem though.  In fact, according to the book Blind Spot, our biggest area of bias is age with 90% of people preferring young to older people.

Self-awareness if the first step.  Curious about your bias?  Take the Implicit Association Test.  I have taken a number of these assessments, and the good news is that bias does not mean you are a racist, sexist, or ageist.  It simply means that your experiences have shaped who you are.  I grew up around primarily white people with a single mother who performed all gender roles in our household.  I have gender bias associating women with careers and white people with power.  That is what my brain saw for many years.  Same with age.  I prefer young people to old people.  Yet, knowing this, I can now challenge it.

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What is ageism?

Ageism is defined as “discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of age.”  Like all biases and stereotypes, it is a construct and it can change over time.  According to the Guardian, “unlike other prejudices such as racism and sexism…ageism is unique in targeting our future selves.”

It is due to our own fears of getting older ourselves.  Our fear of death.  Our fear of being irrelevant drives this ageist belief towards older people.

Ashton Applewhite’s TED talk This Chair Rocks:  A Manifesto Against Ageism brilliantly dispels this belief and bias.  In it, she shares the U curve of happiness.

We are, in fact, happiest at the beginning and ends our lives.  As someone approaching my 40’s, this does make me sad.  Most of the research shows that we are innocent in the early years, jaded in the middle years, and gain perspective later in our lives.

Why do we have to wait for happiness?

Age belongs in the diversity conversation

Because of this data and the reality that age is the biggest area of bias, we all need to own our bias in the workplace.  That means stop asking about retirements, citing “senior moments,” or assuming someone is out of touch because of their age.

If we look to our human evolution, nearly all civilizations had a fire pit.  What happened at these fires?  Older people in the tribe would share stories nightly for younger generations to learn from – stories about eating bad food to tribal dysfunction to successes.  It was in these stories that we learned.  Our older generation can teach us a lot.  And, by broadening diversity beyond race, gender, and/or ethnicity, it includes more people in the conversation.  We can all be allies to one another.  It is when all voices are welcomed, heard, and belong that we thrive.  We are stronger together.

Being an ally requires bravery and courage and you do not have to do it alone

Struggling with where to start your inclusive leadership journey?  We have ideas.  Join me on Lead Like an Ally to get your free 7-day preview of our online program, watch our 2-minute video, and listen to our podcast.

Still have questions?  Message me at  I respond personally to every message I receive.