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Is agriculture ageist?

We tend to respect our elders more in agriculture,” says Tracy Biernacki-Dusza. Even so, ageism is one of the last and most common areas of bias

More than four in 10 Canadians feel that ageism is the most tolerated form of social prejudice, according to the Revera Report on Ageism: Independence and Choice as We Age, released in May 2016 by Revera Inc. and the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research.

This is more than double the number who rated racism or sexism as the most prevalent form of social prejudice.

The report goes on to suggest that many well-intentioned Canadians are in fact depriving their elders of the independence and choice that are crucial to aging well. From Generation Y to Baby Boomers, 25 per cent of Canadians admit they have treated someone differently because of their age, and 51 per cent of Canadians aged 77-plus report that others assume they can’t do things for themselves, with 26 per cent in that age category saying people make choices for them without asking their preference.

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“Ageism is one of the last areas of bias or ‘ism’ that exists, especially in U.S. and Canada,” says Sue Barkman, former president and CEO of Third Quarter, a non-profit organization which matched companies needing experienced and skilled employees with people over 45 looking for second- or third-quarter careers.

“There is still the sense that anyone over a certain age is over the hill or ready to pack it in, and hence there is no point in bothering to either train or hire that person,” Barkman says. “This has become a human rights issue and many court cases have been won over this as well.”

Barkman has witnessed blatant and sad examples of age discrimination based on bias or assumptions. “We have seen people just crushed with hurt to be at the other end of this, and that is what creates a serious problem in society,” she says. “One comment we started to hear more and more was the ‘gray ceiling,’ which seems to be the term for people who wouldn’t ‘know their place and just leave already.’ Even some elected officials who are in their early to mid-60s talk about ‘the old people have to get out of the way and let the youth have a shot at a career.’”

How does agriculture score on ageism?

Do we tend to respect our elders more in agriculture than in other sectors of society? Many think the answer is yes.

“I think we tend to respect our elders more in agriculture,” says Tracy Biernacki-Dusza of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC). “I think that is partly because it’s a different working environment. In primary agriculture you are often going to work with family members. The nature of the relationships that they’ve always had is different than just people you work with in any other industry because you don’t go home with those people, which means you have a connection with these people. Even for workers who are not family members, we often hear that a farm operation has had the same employees for 10 or 15 years.”

Barkman agrees that the agricultural industry is probably the least ageist. “The prevalent mentality is that there is respect for the generations and what they bring to the enterprise,” she says. “For example, the Egg Farmers of Manitoba have some great commercials that show the whole family working together for the sake of the business and for feeding the country. The P.E.I. Potato Growers have a similar message. While some of the larger companies that handle back office may have an attitude about age, the front line food producers appear to be oblivious to age, gender or culture.”

Valuing and respecting older workers

Valuing the expertise that comes with age is more natural on family farms, and some agri-businesses run programs to re-hire retired workers, partly to help mentor younger ones. Still, it seems some companies simply don’t appreciate the opportunity.

“Institutional memory and legacy planning is often overlooked in the human resource planning piece,” says Barkman. “A company may force retirement or lay off people of a certain age because they are perceived as being too expensive or past their prime, but once these people are gone, they realize that the processes and institutional memory has gone with them and they have to start all over again with processes and relationships with customers.”

Although ageism is alive and well in some Canadian workplaces, it’s not in all. “Third Quarter polled a number of businesses in southern Manitoba about their attitudes about age and we got blank looks all around,” says Barkman. “We heard comments like ‘why would we not hire someone with more experience… as long as they can and want to work… we need them,’ and ‘we were raised to respect the experience and knowledge of the generation above us… why would we even think that way.’” Says Barker, “That made my day!”

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