Expert Advice

Ageism in the Nonprofit Workplace: Alive and Well

| Updated April 10, 2018

Know your true worth and combat ageist attitudes from co-workers

Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder, and CEO is joined by Aging Is Cool co-founder, Amy Temperly for the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc.

These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I am a silver-haired, baby boomer who is looking at 60 coming right down the road. I have never been smarter or wiser than I am at this point in my life. I am well educated and have years of nonprofit executive experience. I am currently the CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit, an organization that is thriving and growing — in part because of my leadership. I am fit, very healthy and have more energy than most 35-year-olds I know.

So, what’s my problem? Well, I could be imagining this, but it seems to me that I have crossed some invisible line that makes me “old” and somehow less credible as a professional to my staff and to some colleagues.

At work, the examples of this ageist attitude are both subtle and not so subtle. I recently attended an HHS policy luncheon, where I was grilled by a young, female colleague (to her evident amusement) about my exact age. She couldn’t believe that I was “still” leading my organization after “all these years!” I’ve also noticed that there are suddenly some new assumptions about what I can understand about certain subject matters and what I can’t (as if I can’t learn whatever I need to learn if I’m handed a new subject.)

Pratura Group This article is sponsored by Pratura Group

I honestly never thought of myself as old or non-productive until I began to notice these attitudes. My observation is that many leaders of nonprofits, both women and men, are my age or older and they are terrific at their jobs. Am I making this ageism concern up or is this an issue for others? And, if I am reading this correctly, what is the best way to address this issue?

Kathryn says …

While I don’t know all the specifics of your situation, I can tell you that ageism is alive and well in our culture. Ageism is not just confined to the nonprofit industry; it is everywhere! We are a culture of youth worshippers. The celebration of youth hits both men and women very hard, and your silver hair is probably a beacon to some millennials that you may be older than their feeble senior parents! You probably thought you could escape this culturally incompetent insensitivity, but unfortunately not.

In general, most leaders of mid-to-large nonprofits are in their late 50s or 60s, just like you. And the truth is that these same executives will be retiring from the workforce, much to the sector's loss. Meanwhile, you and your fellow boomers have done and will continue to do a great job in working towards social change.

Estimates suggest that up to 75 percent of U.S. nonprofit leaders are planning to leave their positions in the next five to 10 years. With over one million nonprofits and philanthropic institutions in the U.S. alone, the implications of the expected turnover are enormous. By even a modest estimate, a half-million executives may exit their positions over the next 15 years.

In the meantime, it sounds as if you are operating at peak performance. I think it's ironic that your staff and colleagues are the ones basing their opinions and biases on “old-school” thinking. You are progressive here, not them. You will likely live another 25-30 years, and if you manage to stay as healthy as you are now, all those years will be productive. It’s your younger staff who are referencing some notion from the 50’s or 60’s that everyone is old, infirm and ready to die at 60 or 70. Nothing could be further from the truth in 2018.

What to do to combat these attitudes? Older adults are dealing with the same biases that many marginalized communities face every day: people of color, the LGBT community, non-Christians and of late, immigrants. Maybe this challenge and struggle will make you and all of us that are inevitably aging (and that includes your young colleague – surprise to her!) stronger characters.

My advice: First, don’t give up the fight against these misguided attitudes and continue to assert yourself as a person of experience and intelligence. And second, realize you are not alone and your contributions are critical to a making better world.

Amy Temperly, of “Aging is Cool” says …

First things first, you are not imagining this. Sadly, ageism is very real problem in our society. One thing to watch out for is falling into the trap of believing the stereotypes yourself. You are right. You are better than you have ever been! You are smarter, wiser and have a career/lifetime worth of strengths to bring to the table. Research shows that as we age we strengthen our leadership skills, are more resilient and have better communication skills.

It is going to take some time to change the dynamic that sees older workers as a liability rather than an asset. Here are some tips to help change the stereotypes.

  • Keep learning and growing. Go to trainings, embrace new technology, facilitate input from diverse sources and incorporate them into your work.
  • Stay visible. Be sure your voice is at the table with those of other generations. Don't pull back despite those who don't understand. Show them your value!
  • Don't believe the hype. When it comes to aging stereotypes, we are our own worst enemy. Focus on your strengths and use them every chance you get!

It is going to take some time to change the story but as more and more of us remain in the workforce past "retirement age" we have the chance to show people what an asset older adults can be in all realms of society.

About Amy: Amy Temperley has been working with older adults and their caregivers in one form or fashion in the social services and nonprofit industries for more than 25 years. Amy believes that aging can be an amazing journey where you can continue to learn, grow and create. She is passionate about helping older adults meet their goals and helping to strengthen agencies and the community to better serve them.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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