Just how prevalent is ageism in U.S. organisations? The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that it remains a problem, but demographic realities mean that it could be undergoing its own phased retirement.
According to a new report from website RetirementJobs.com, almost all employees – some 96 per cent - believe that age bias is a continuing problem while some three-quarters (77 per cent) claim to have actually experienced or observed ageism where they work.
More than half (54 per cent) also believe that ageism is actually getting worse, with just 12 per cent hopeful that it is on the decline.
But these figures are some three times higher than those for employers, more than a third of whom (36 per cent) claim that age bias is on the decline and only 18 per cent of whom perceive it as getting worse.
Employees are also far less optimistic that ageism will be eradicated any time soon. They are almost five times more likely than employers to believe their organisation is making no conscious effort to retain and recruit workers age 50+, while fewer than one in 10 can identify any specific policies or practices intended to recruit or retain workers aged 50 or over.
"For some time, age bias has been part of our culture," says Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, co-director of the Boston College Center on Aging & Work/Workplace Flexibility.
"Therefore, it should come as no surprise that negative stereotypes about age can be present at the workplace."
Nevertheless, despite the fact that almost eight out of 10 employers said that ageism is "just a fact of life", she said she was encouraged by the study's finding that a large proportion of employers believe that it is on the decline.
But while the belief in age bias remains all-pervasive, look more closely and it seems that the incidence of discrimination is less than workers' as well as employers' perceptions would suggest.
Indeed, the report says that despite more than 300 Age Bias Survey participants providing comments describing "age bias I have experienced or observed," fewer than 10 individuals provides any apparent factual or substantial basis for their claim.
This may simply reflect an indifference or reluctance to report personal specifics in a survey, the report suggests, or it may point to the fact that ageism manifests itself as 'sense' of discrimination and an unwritten rule that older workers are fixed in their ways, inflexible, not team players and cost too much.
But while this may well be so, the report's author, Bob Skladany, Director of Research at RetirementJobs.com, stresses that ageism may be on the decline, arguing that employers "know something employees may not know: that long-predicted worker shortages are upon us, and therefore employers must hire more workers age 50+."
Or, as Tim Driver, CEO of RetirementJobs.com puts it, "workplace age bias is undergoing its own phased retirement."
"Older employees are electing to work longer than planned. Employers, meanwhile, increasingly understand the merits of retaining and hiring workers that connect with customers, are dedicated, turn over less often (than younger employees), and hold valuable lessons learned from their prior careers," Driver added.
Demographic change will only intensify this trend. The proportion of workers aged 50 or more growing far faster than younger workers and will comprise a third of the total U.S. labour force by 2011.
As a result, areas such as healthcare, retail, customer services, sales, financial services, the crafts and trades, engineering, skilled manufacturing, the sciences, education and in government service are already experiencing a shortage of workers while facing further problems as large numbers of Baby Boomers retire over the next few years.
Bob Skladany stressed that age bias and discrimination cannot continue if the U.S. economy is to maintain growth and vitality.
"Labor market demand, global competitive realities, the aging of the U.S. workforce and the desire of older workers to remain gainfully employed, compel our society to remove the barriers, real and perceived, regarding age bias," he said.