Does the outdoor industry have an age-discrimination problem?
Outdoor brands are taking a harder look at inclusivity, but are they factoring age into the equation?
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Jane Anderson* is tired of telling people that you don’t have to be young to get rad. Anderson, 48, is an avid snowboarder and mountain biker. The problem is, no one seems to believe her—at least, not when she applies to jobs.
Anderson currently works in communications at one of the largest outdoor brands in the U.S. and has over 25 years of relevant experience. She recalls chatting about her favorite sports before an interview at one outdoor company. She says the interviewer looked at her with surprise: “Oh, you still do those things?” he says.
Subtle comments like that can be an indicator of age discrimination, an issue that’s slowly gaining visibility in the U.S.—and for good reason. In fiscal year 2018, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received more than twice as many age-discrimination claims as sexual harassment claims.
This is despite the fact that older workers tend to be more loyal, more reliable, and harder-working than young employees, according to a 2015 AARP study. More experience does mean a higher salary, but the study reports that companies that hire older workers more than recoup the labor costs, thanks to lower employee turnover and increased employee engagement.
Age discrimination is a widespread issue, says Colorado-based HR consultant Ann Hogan, and it’s not limited to any one sector.
But could it be worse in the outdoor industry than in others?
A lack of age representation in marketing
Some advocates for older workers argue that age discrimination in the outdoor industry is particularly rampant because of the way outdoor recreation is represented in the media.
“Take a look at the websites of major brands in our industry. How many of them show [older individuals] in their advertising?” says Robin Enright Salcido, 60. Salcido is the founder of visual merchandising agency Merchandising Matters and former editor of Women’s Adventure Magazine. She’s also the founder of Our Stories Today, a blog focused on life for women after 50.
When athletes, influencers, and models skew young, it’s easy to conflate that population for the outdoor population, a source of frustration for many older outdoor industry employees.
“If you’re older, people look at you and think, ‘how could you possibly understand what’s going on?’” says Rachel Miller*, 55, who has been working in sales at various outdoor companies for 27 years and is a lifelong skier and trail runner. “But that’s obviously a false assumption. There are a ton of older athletes.”
The party-culture problem can lead to age discrimination
Anderson points to cultural differences as another reason older workers might be falling behind.
“A lot of us grew up without social media. We don’t want to share everything,” Anderson says. She’s observed that, because of that “culture of oversharing,” younger workers seem less likely to keep their work and private lives separate, and that her preference for privacy is sometimes misinterpreted as unfriendliness.
Another culprit may be the laid-back atmosphere of the outdoor industry, which tends to encourage employees to get together for post-work adventures—and post-adventure beers. Miller noticed that party culture at work, as well.
“The people who went out [drinking] together seemed to have an advantage in getting promoted,” Miller says. As a woman in a different stage of life, that put her at a disadvantage. “I couldn’t stay out after work—I had a family to get home to,” she says.
Spotting the signs of age discrimination
Age discrimination can be hard to nail down, but the interviewees who came forward say they’ve started to notice some potential markers.
“I see companies trying to fill the same position every 12 months, but when I apply, they tell me I’m overqualified,” says Stephen Wilkinson, 65, who has 25 years of outdoor industry experience with a focus in retail management. “These job descriptions sometimes include multimillion-dollar responsibilities but require only two or three years of experience.”
Hogan says those things are potentially signs of discrimination, but that, on their own, they’re probably not sufficient proof.
The bigger red flags often have to do with the way jobs are advertised. Using phrases like “we’re looking for a candidate fresh out of college,” could be seen as discriminatory, Hogan says. Even more in the danger zone: Promoting a job opening on Facebook with an ad targeted at ages 18 to 35. (That information isn’t visible to ad viewers, but it’s something job posters should be aware of.)
“Organizations need to be proactive to make sure they don’t have any discriminatory processes in place,” says Hogan. “Anyone involved in the interviewing process should be trained in employment law.”
Are outdoor HR departments addressing age discrimination?
The bigger issue may not be that these biases exist, but that outdoor companies may be resistant to addressing them.
During her eight-year tenure at one outdoor company, Miller was repeatedly rejected when she applied for promotions. “Even if my teammates supported me and I knew I was qualified, I was never hired,” she says.
Miller reported her suspicions of age discrimination to both her supervisor and HR department. She even had supportive teammates who complained on her behalf.
“The response was always the same: ‘Oh, we wouldn’t do that.’ They denied anything was going on,” she says.
Hogan says that approaching management and HR is the recommended course of action in most cases. However, she notes that employees always have the option to file a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if they believe that they’re experiencing something more sinister than just bad company culture.
She also says that there’s a lot of responsibility on companies to make sure they’re advertising jobs in places where a diverse group of people will see them, and that they’re considering all qualified applicants.
“A lot of brands are looking to become more inclusive,” says Anderson. “I want them to sit down and think—are they looking at age as well as other types of diversity?”
*These are pseudonyms. OBJ granted these interviewees anonymity due to concerns of retribution from their employers.