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Age is just a number… or is it?

We’ve all heard sayings like “age is just a number” and “you’re only as old as you feel”. They are often intended to soften the presumed ‘blow’ of aging, but what messages do they actually reinforce? Is getting older really a bad thing? Is youth the ultimate advantage in our society? To what extent is age actually relevant in the workplace?

Age is just a number… or is it?"

NorQuest's wellness team has created a resource around ageism. As part of NorQuest's effort to contribute to the discussion, we spoke with a handful of NorQuest employees who shared their insights and experiences around age-based discrimination and stereotypes. Here's what they had to say:

One Social Worker who graduated at twenty-four struggled with clients doubting her ability to help based on looking young for her age, and assumed life experiences – or lack thereof.

"I frequently heard comments like 'How old are you?' 'What could you know about life and life's struggles?' 'How can you help me if you haven't even experienced life yet?'" she explained. "They always left me feeling minimized and having to defend myself to prove my abilities, despite my educational credentials."

Experiences like this are common in the workplace, and clearly negatively impact those who are the target of this form of ageism.

Another spoke to the intersection of age and gender, speaking candidly about her first job after graduating at the age of twenty-one. "After a break-up of a relationship, I asked for a day off to recuperate," she said. "The following week, my boss called me into a meeting and told me that I was at my peak age for being able to get married, and he would understand if I needed to leave work early on Fridays in order to go on dates to find a husband before I became too old to find a good man."

"Because I was the youngest and I didn't have children, by default I was always the overtime worker or the night worker… it wasn't even up for discussion," she explained. "I tried bringing it up once and was told that it wasn't because I wasn't married, it was because I was the youngest, so working night shifts would impact my mental and physical health the least." Though there were other people of a similar age working at the organization as camp counsellors, they were never subjected to those types discussions because they were working in a position that was deemed 'age appropriate,' whereas she was in a management role and was therefore expected to act like a manager. In contrast, the common assumption that an individual can't do something because they're older is also often assumed in the workplace.

Another source described the dynamics with an older employee, who was presumed to be less technologically capable and knowledgeable than his younger colleagues. "He wanted to start a project, and he initially presumed that the younger people working on the project would - and should - be the tech experts, because that's what young people do," said the NorQuest employee. "However, they made it way more complicated and expensive than it needed to be, ignoring the older employee's cheaper and simpler solution. Ultimately, they ran with his idea and saved a lot of money in the process."

While all of these stories differ in their context, what they all do is perfectly demonstrate age as a social construct. Expectations placed on us solely based on our chronological age - or perceived age based on appearance - can create barriers and reinforce stigma at best, and cause psychological harm at worst. In the newest discrimination resource created by the Wellness Team, we provide some introductory information about the history of ageism, types of ageism, who it impacts, and the mental health implications it can have on those affected. Be sure to check out the Wellness Workshops at norquest.ca/wellness for more information.

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