Reflections on unconscious bias

StreetCorner Opinion


Reflections on unconscious bias

In a recent posting on Next Avenue, managing editor Richard Eisenberg interviewed journalist Jessica Nordell about her newly published book, “The End of Bias: A Beginning,” where the author shares her insights on ageism and overcoming unconscious bias in the workplace. While noting that it is one of the three major forms of discrimination, the others being gender and race, she shares her insights on a topic that is increasingly important spanning both Baby Boomers and Generation X, who often find themselves denied work opportunities solely determined by age. As recently noted in an interview by Eisenberg, with NYU’s Michael North regarding his research with colleague Stanford’s Ashley Martin, respondence indicated that though they were stalwarts against the traditional forms of discrimination there was a correlation supporting ageism. Similarly, Nordell aptly points out, “Ageism is one category where in some ways it’s still kind of acceptable to be somewhat biased“or, as she refers to as “unconscious bias.”

Is this merely an oversite, or lack of personal awareness?

It begs the question: Why is age discrimination still acceptable? It strikes me that there is more than one reason why an issue like this is so pervasive in the workplace.

To a greater magnitude, this ageist attitude runs deep in our culture. As pointed out in his recent Happily Rewired blog posting, Barry Silverstein focuses on how the advertising media portrays older people in less than a positive light, quoting AgeWave founder Ken Dychtwald writing in AARP. Dychtwald writes that “advertising is still far too often out of sync with the reality of today’s older, more seasoned buyer.”  If “The medium is the message,” as theorized years ago by Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964, the place to start is by rebranding, the “stereotypes & associations” referred to by Nordell to the benefit of a significant portion of our population.

Nordell speaks of the lost “veneration of elders” in our society compared to other cultures and how much better off we would be if we viewed age as offering life perspective and an accumulation of wisdom. This insight is exactly the message, if embraced by our culture, that would allow more access for older job hunters to find success.

Despite the theories and the supposition, the reality that remains places a large number of our population progressively marginalized in the workplace. Clearly, age discrimination must become an outmoded attitude if we wish to provide future aging cohorts, in the face of advancements in modern medical technology promising increased longevity and life extension, a productive place in our society.    

There have been times where events caused paradigm shifts in cultural attitudes; rapidly for example, in the name of national interests, where women increased the labor force in industrial might, as both homemaker and factory workers during WWII. And, more slowly in the early part of the 20th century where the industrial age required the strength of youth to keep up with production, as Ken Dychtwald posits, and began to devalue older workers.

We have before us another inflection point, where despite initiatives endorsing equality in the workplace appearing in the guise of inclusiveness, the unconscienced bias of age discrimination still dictates the thinking of those hiring. It is time for Senior Human Resources executives to vanguard cultural change in the workplace as a top priority. As Human Capital has evolved to a place of significant importance within the corporate structure, so should the power of its influence over corporate leadership motivate mandating policies that expressly require inclusion of older employees as part of a diversified workforce. Hiring managers must be educated in the virtues and advantages of hiring those with institutional knowledge and creative resources available in our current demographic reality.

Rick Manning,



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