How AI & Mindfulness Can Tackle Age Bias in the Modern Workplace


Ageism is front and center in today’s hiring landscape. This past spring, the World Health Organization declared ageism to be a prevalent and insidious health threat. Andres Blank Co-founder of Fetcher shares how AI can tackle age bias in the workplace.

Despite research that indicates higher retention rates among older workers and also speaks to the value and perspective they bring to companies, ageism is often more prevalent in the modern workplace than sexism or racism.   In recent years, older workers have looked to the courts with more frequency for remedies. Companies have no choice now but to be more mindful when approaching this problem.  Some businesses utilize outside-the-box solutions like gamification and reverse mentorship to navigate the challenge of diversifying workforces. But, as the spectre of ageism in the workplace grows, businesses need comprehensive strategies (not band-aids) to help them combat the issue.  AI and automation can and should be integral parts of any forward-thinking strategy, particularly when it comes to companies taking advantage of churn in the job market amongst older workers.

It’s estimated that in just five years 25% of all workers will be over 55 – a percentage that has doubled over the last quarter-century. With the average age of retirement on the rise, more people are looking to either stay in the workforce longer or re-enter it when they’re over 55 via a new career path.  In fact, nearly half of those aged 55-64 will exit and re-enter the workforce during this particular period.  

Yet, while it takes the average person just 43 days to find, interview and start a new job, Baby Boomers can expect the same process to last 46 weeks! Not surprisingly, older workers are increasingly less likely to let this kind of discrimination happen to them without a fight.  

Over the last year, there has been a wave of litigation brought on by revelations that employers recruiting on various platforms effectively eliminated candidates simply because they were considered too old. Google just settled an age bias lawsuit to the tune of $11 MN USD. In fact, in the years after the ADEA was passed in 1967 only 1,000-5,000 age-related complaints were filed annually.  In contrast, more than 18,000 age discrimination complaints were filed in 2017.

Clearly, between shifting demographics and a desire for action, we’ve reached a kind of tipping point. 

The hiring phase where older workers exit and re-enter the workforce represents a unique inflection point in the fight against ageism. Using AI here should significantly impact hiring strategies and help create more age-diverse workforces.  Active application of mindful hiring algorithms should also (theoretically) decrease the amount of age-discrimination lawsuits companies now face, as well!

While many global corporations and other organizations have begun to acknowledge ageism, meaningful action has been slow-going. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives all require extremely intentional hiring decisions that can be difficult to make and even harder to implement. Yet, the first step towards addressing ageism should start at the top of the hiring funnel.  AI is a powerful tool to that end.    

AI and automation help companies identify potential biases in their hiring patterns. It can help companies move beyond age restrictions or a candidate’s “years experience” as criteria, which can hurt both younger and older applicants and lead to a less diverse candidate pipeline. Capricious age restrictions tend to eliminate broad swaths of potential workers. This not only promotes bias but undercuts efforts to find the best candidate available for a job.  AI can also help businesses work around other proxies for ageism, like salary requirements, which can unintentionally filter out older applicants.   

With the power and scale of AI and automation, hiring managers and recruiters can spend their time crafting thoughtful messaging and properly calibrating their searches to ensure they are not excluding potential candidates. Without the benefit of AI, however, recruiters don’t have that luxury. 

Yet, creating an age-diverse talent pipeline that takes advantage of churn in the job market is only part of the solution.  Identifying and eliminating unconscious bias from the interview process and the company culture is equally important.  

“A lot of the work revolves around unconscious bias training,” says Elizabeth Shober, Senior Director of Talent at Udemy and Founder of TechOver40. “We’ve had examples, for instance, where we’ve brought people in and we would start to hear feedback like: Well, I’m not sure they have energy, or, I’m not sure they’ll fit in culturally, or, Do they have enough stamina?  A lot of it comes down to just training people against unconscious bias.”

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Unconscious bias also extends to how companies create inclusive workplaces.  For example, it’s now not uncommon for tech companies to help fund fertility procedures for younger workers (which is laudable) but they won’t necessarily help older workers take care of an aging parent.  Similarly, many tech companies now help pay for medical fertility devices whereas they won’t necessarily help pay for age-specific medical items like hearing aids.   There are many ways companies can begin to equally honor and validate the older worker.  Often times, it’s just a question of mindfulness and understanding the benefits of an age-diverse workforce.  

“Statistically older workers just stay longer, “ says Shober. “They tend to have a longer retention rate so that – once you train them – you can harvest their experience for a longer period of time.“

The good news is that over the last ten years the media and information surrounding ageism has gradually improved but, unfortunately, 20% of companies today still see older workers as a disadvantage, according to a recent study.  

“Once we start talking about ageism, people recognize it when they’re sitting in a room,” says Shober.   “Once people become aware, the possibility of change is there.  But without awareness, there can be no change.”

Tackling ageism requires a willingness to confront outdated concepts about older workers and a willingness to use new strategies and tools to combat the issue. This approach affords companies newer and better ways to organize themselves.  While there remains a long road ahead to reverse negative preconceptions about older workers, attitudes should eventually shift to reflect changing demographics. Greater recognition of the issue, advanced technologies and a willingness to fight suggests that we can and will ultimately make progress.  

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