Workforce Ageism: How Mature Workers Can Change Negative Perceptions

Our mindsets can limit our potential. Unfortunately, some mature workers have self-limiting beliefs about what they can and cannot do. Here’s how to change them.  

Ms Shirley Woon, a housewife, had taken a career break for almost 16 years to care for her children and family. 

In 2012, Shirley was motivated to lead a more meaningful life. So, she signed up for a Master of Social Science in Professional Counselling, attending classes at night while juggling her assignments with caregiving duties during the day.

Unfortunately, after she completed her Masters, Shirley found herself jobless as no one wanted to hire her. 

But Shirley did not let that setback stop her. She decided to fulfil her dream of becoming a professional counsellor by starting her own practice called The Blue Pencil. Her can-do spirit was recognised with a nomination for Singapore 40-over-40 list, which aims to celebrate successful and inspirational women. 

If there is one thing that mature workers can learn from Shirley’s experience, it is to look beyond your age to achieve your dreams. This requires cultivating a more balanced mindset towards ageing, or even reframing negative beliefs around ageing. 

According to Singaporean life coach Ms June Wee-Grant, mature workers commonly perceive themselves as being “not digitally savvy”, “too old to learn new things” or “less valued due to their age.” 

June explains that these perceptions may have arisen due to a few reasons.

“Digital transformation is taking place everywhere, and these changes are very new to mature workers who grew up in an analogue world,” she shared.

“This could cause them to feel overwhelmed and hopeless because they have spent many years building a career, only to feel that they need to start all over again. They also need to do things differently with unfamiliar tools.”

Another reason could be self-limiting beliefs around ageing. 

“A key source of this self-limiting belief could be the way in which they interpret the ageing process. For example, they may not be able to move as fast as before, and they may be more prone to having memory slips. This may cause mature individuals to fixate on such changes and perceive them negatively, fulfilling the belief that they cannot keep up anymore.”

Overcoming self-limiting beliefs

When coaching mature workers, June conducts a self-inquiry exercise to get individuals to challenge their negative self-beliefs.

1. Examine your self-beliefs

June starts by getting these individuals to examine their personal list of negative perceptions and emotions about themselves. She also asks them to look for facts and determine if the statements are true. Most individuals will likely find that they are not entirely accurate.

2. Reflect on whether they are helpful

She then asks them to conduct a process of self-enquiry about these negative perceptions: Is this serving me? What is it costing me?

Using these questions, June helps individuals reflect if the beliefs are constructive or if they limit their potential. 

“By examining what their negative perceptions are costing them, individuals become aware of the impact of seeing things from this limiting perspective,” she explained.

“When they understand that this perspective is not serving them well, it opens up the possibility of seeing things from another viewpoint.”

3. Reframe your thoughts 

Finally, June encourages them to reframe their thoughts by asking them “what is another way of looking at this?”

For example, instead of thinking, “I am too old to learn”, she invites them to consider a new perspective that is more positive and supportive. As a result, the reframed thought may become “My age means I have gained a lot of wisdom which I can build on as I learn more new skills.”

Just as it is possible to reframe your own mindset, it is also possible to change negative stereotypes people may have about mature workers.

June suggests mature individuals ask their colleagues for honest feedback and be open to improving themselves. 

“As you get to know your colleagues, you can open up and say that you are aware of negative stereotypes about mature individuals. Use this opportunity to create a friendly exchange of views and invite them to provide you with feedback if they notice that you are perpetuating the stereotype.” 

At the same time, it is also important to accept the feedback graciously and work on it. Doing so will show others that you are open-minded and adaptable.

4. Be curious

Another way to challenge negative stereotypes is to be curious. You’re never too old to learn something new and June encourages mature individuals to ask more questions, in an effort to learn from the people around them (even if they’re many years younger). 

For instance, mature workers can ask their colleagues about their experiences and seek their advice. In doing so, they could gain a whole new perspective that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t made the effort to be curious. They may also earn the respect of their colleagues for being so open-minded and willing to learn. 

Ageing is a process everyone goes through. But it does not mean you need to be defined by your age. As many inspiring and successful mature workers have demonstrated, it is possible to defy stereotypes and pursue your dreams, regardless of your age. The key is to change your mindset.

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