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Ageism in the Workplace: How Women Can Stay Relevant

Watercolor portrait of Charles Darwin with the quote: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." for an article on ageism in the workplace

When I started to struggle with ageism in the workplace as a woman over 55, I noticed my colleagues didn’t see my ideas, wisdom, or experience as relevant. So, I considered retiring. But instead of fading into obscurity, I contemplated starting a training company where I could transcend ageism, stay relevant, and disrupt the substance use disorder field.

To help me learn how, I attended a workshop at the Wise Women Business Center at Syracuse University. There, I learned how to write a business plan with eight other older women.

What shocked me was that each woman felt that she was being forced out of their career and had experienced the same ageism in the workplace that I had. The instructor noted that it is common for women to reach 50 and feel irrelevant, invisible, and without purpose or value.

While this is common, aging women also have a fierceness of spirit that’s hard to deny.

These women were there to learn how to start a business, and they represented various creative ideas, knowledge, and wisdom, all just fledglings of ideas with wobbly feet, overwhelmed minds, and a solid determination to re-invent themselves.

With them, I felt at home.

You see, I have re-invented myself three times in my life (so far).

Why Aging Women Experience Ageism in the Workplace and Start to Feel Irrelevant

There are many reasons why a woman feels irrelevant or invisible in the workplace.

The biggest one is perimenopause and its related impact on the brain and hormones.

When I entered perimenopause, I began switching up my words. If I wanted to say cold, I would say hot. I knew what I wanted to say, but my rebellious brain said the opposite. It was especially bad during the work week.

It was humiliating, and people began to believe something was wrong with me. Heck, I questioned if I had early dementia.

Early in perimenopause, I didn’t know there was help for the brain fog.

Our self-care must change as we age. Perimenopause causes sleep disturbances, and we need to be well-rested to function at the same level as before. As estrogen drops, we can support and even balance our hormones with a balanced diet. Coffee and other mild stimulants could help clear the brain fog. Hormone replacement is also available if symptoms worsen.

I had my children young and never intended to have more, so I was shocked when I began to grieve the loss and possibility of having another child during perimenopause. A door was closing that would never open again.

If you know anything about grieving, you know that it is a very stressful time and can significantly impact brain fog. Allowing yourself to grieve is part of this process. Women can journal, draw, paint, or write creative stories. No matter how you express grief, it’s important to acknowledge this part of the journey.

There is also a perception that our brains deteriorate, which is just a normal part of aging. I felt helpless and discouraged, believing that I could not accomplish everything I had on my bucket list. I later learned that this thinking couldn’t be further from the truth.

Perimenopause symptoms not only improve as you get on the other side but they can also be treated while they are happening.

The Law of Attraction and Ageism in the Workplace

Pheromones, instrumental in attraction, decrease in men and women as we age. It is a normal part of aging, and staying healthy and working with your doctor or holistic practitioner to keep your hormones balanced will help you maintain your pheromone level and prevent the ageism that comes with lower pheromones. You will see that light in the eyes of others again when they want to interact with you.

Perimenopause and decreased pheromones are biological aspects of aging that we can control, to a point. What makes it challenging is the way people respond to these two conditions. Our mothers and grandmothers tell us, “It will pass,” as their solution to the problem, so we often don’t seek help.

 

Staying Relevant

What do we do with the insecurity, hurt, and outrage that develops due to how others respond to us?

For women over 55, the most critical aspects of staying relevant in the workplace are staying healthy, keeping current, getting enough sleep, maintaining social activities, good grooming (you know, those unwanted hairs), and reducing stress levels.

A Them vs Us Mentality 

The world has changed so much that it has widened the gap between the young and old in the workplace. As a technology immigrant instead of a technology native, I am not as quick as my young counterparts. They live in a world where things happen instantaneously, and new technology is integrated without effort. I appreciate their skills and often reach out to them for assistance.

Do you value these skills or resent that you have to ask them for help?

The greatest gift I received from my grandchildren was seeing their faces when I asked them to help me with my computer or phone. Mind you, they were in grade school. They were so proud that they knew something that I did not, and it leveled the playing field on this 50+ age difference. It helped me to appreciate them as individuals with gifts and realize that age is only a number. Even though they were not fully grown, they had so much to offer the world.

What To Do With Your Outrage over Ageism

I was outraged when new hires anxious to prove themselves regarded my ideas and advice at work as outdated, irrelevant, or obsolete.

These new faces came to the workplace with vitality, fresh ideas, and boundless energy. But, in their earnestness, they also gave off the “move out of my way and let me have my turn” vibe.

The source of my outrage was that, in their eagerness to make a name for themselves, they discarded so much organizational history and wisdom.

I carried the histories and the stories, and they didn’t want to hear it.

When I stepped back and recognized it is normal for young people to want to see their fresh ideas implemented, I realized the challenge was finding a way to stay relevant to them.

Do you stay current on the newest technology, theories, and language? Can you converse without asking what the other person means by this term or that?

Do you roll your eyes and discount things that you don’t understand? Or do you enter the conversation with curiosity and learn from them?

Have you stopped learning and, being curious in doing so, made yourself irrelevant?

Clear Vision To Overcome Ageism

Patience and clear vision come with age. Tapping into it is key.

When I reflected on my experience as a younger employee, I could relate. But from my vantage point, I could see all the pitfalls, the strategies that had been tried and failed, and the foundational components that kept everything together.

The younger employees’ focus is forward, which brings incredible creativity and new ideas. The older employees hold the history and can often give valid reasons why something may look good on paper but won’t work in reality.

How we present that insight is critical.

You might try, “That is an interesting idea, and we tried something similar a few years ago. How do you see this working, and how would it be different today?”

This language validates the younger employee’s ideas. It also engages them with curiosity while providing room for your wisdom and avoiding rigidity and judgment.

Cultivating Relationships to Stay Relevant

It is usual for workplace peer groups to form based on age, level of employment, or common interests. In today’s workforce, there are limited opportunities for older women to join peer groups, which can cause them to feel excluded and isolated.

Women must reflect on their workplace relationships and actively cultivate them to stay relevant. To do so, many women mentor new employees. This mentoring can benefit the mentor and mentee, allowing them to exchange theories, test ideas, and become more effective.

Tapping into Generational Diversity is Key

In the Harvard Business article, “Unlocking the Benefits of the Multigenerational Workplace,” Ellen Bailey and Cevin Owens offer this wisdom:

“Generational diversity is broader than ever in today’s workforce. But organizations that can recognize and leverage the strengths of each generation hold a significant competitive advantage.”

According to the Pew Research Center, today’s workforce is blessed with five generations of diversity:

  • Silent Generation (born before 1945)
  • Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964)
  • Generation X (1965 to 1980)
  • Millennials (1981 to 1996)
  • Generation Z (born after 1997)

Bailey and Owens suggest that we must bust the myths of the stereotypes associated with each generation and instead look at each individual for the strengths they bring to the organization.

If an organization does so, they claim, “In today’s intergenerational workforce, knowledge does not cascade downward like a waterfall. Instead, it spreads out and flows in all directions, like a network of canals linking all the neighborhoods in a city.”

When organizations encourage this spread and flow of intergenerational knowledge, it helps all employees feel relevant and free from the impact of ageism and reverse ageism.

Build a Culture of Collaboration with Motivational Interviewing

How do organizations create a culture where generational diversity is valued? Through collaboration

Collaboration is one of the foundational skills of Motivational Interviewing (MI) and a strength that all of us can nurture. In the Spirit of MI, we see each other as experts and work together to share ideas and a common goal.

MI minimizes power differentials, like ageism in the workplace, and allows each person to feel valued and able to share openly without fear of discrimination. When an organization embraces the Spirit of MI (partnership, acceptance, compassion, and empowerment), many barriers come down.

Young people in the workforce want to be heard and respected, the same as we do.

MI creates a space where that can happen. With its tools, we can learn to let go of the outrage and embrace the spirit of inclusion. Both keys to better communication, better teams, more creativity, and less time spent trying things that have been shown not to work.

Eyes of Wisdom

In my efforts to stay relevant despite ageism, I developed a strategy what I call the “Eyes of Wisdom,” or the ability to accept people at their developmental or life stage.

That is not to suggest that we should consider younger people in the workforce incomplete or that we are wiser than them, but similar to a psychologist working with a patient, we can be strategic about what, when, and how we say things.

When a parent raises a teenager, they have lots of grace for that teen. The parent recognizes that the teen cannot understand certain concepts or the emotional maturity to have accurate empathy (MI term) in certain areas. They acknowledge that there isn’t anything wrong with the youth that a few more years of brain development will not fix.

It looks a little different for older women in the workforce, but on some levels, it is similar.

I recognize that a 20-something young adult is in the stage of life where they establish themselves and want to be treated as a fully functioning adult. So, although I recognize that they have many life lessons yet to experience, I can use MI to affirm their strengths, offer suggestions in the spirit of collaboration, and be open to their new ideas while still staying true to my values.

Discover how the Spirit of Motivational Interviewing can help you stay relevant and overcome ageism in your workplace—and even position you as a safe, trusted mentor to all the bright, energetic young employees.

We have three, convenient MI training options to help you on your journey.

 

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