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Millennials face yet another workplace challenge—ageism

In a new Fast Company-Harris Poll, 36% of younger millennials and Gen Z say they’ve faced workplace ageism, often due to a perceived lack of experience.

Millennials face yet another workplace challenge—ageism
[Source Photo: rawpixel]
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Jenn Steinhardt has had her credentials questioned, been excluded from meetings she should’ve participated in, and dealt with bias in interactions with coworkers—all because she’s a millennial.

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The 32-year-old service coordinator for an audio-visual company is among the 31% of working adults who have experienced ageism in the workplace, according to a new Harris Poll conducted exclusively for Fast Company. Among younger millennials and members of Gen Z, it’s 36%. A perceived lack of experience may be the driving reason behind this treatment, the poll finds. Forty-four percent of this group agree that people their age are viewed as inexperienced, versus 28% of older millennials and Gen Xers up to age 56.

Most demographers say millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, and the Harris Poll splits them into younger millennials (ages 25 to 32) and older ones (ages 33 to 40).

Foremost in Steinhardt’s mind is a conversation she had with a manager about a marketing piece. The Parsippany, New Jersey, resident’s background is in media art and design with a dollop of corporate communications experience, so she was walking him through how the user would read the page.

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“He said, ‘You’ve only been here for two years’—I’d been there for four—’and I’ve been in this industry for over 30 years.’ I said, ‘I apologize. We have different perspectives on this. How would you like to proceed?’ I knew I wouldn’t win this battle,” Steinhardt remembers.

Two sides to the ageism coin

On the flip side of being perceived as inexperienced is being thought of as out of touch. Among employed adults of all ages, 37% reported feeling that people their age are viewed as out of touch at work, the Harris Poll reveals. That grows to 39% for workers over age 41, who are Gen Xers or baby boomers. But it’s not just older workers who feel that way: 38% of Gen Z and younger millennials do, as well as 30% of older millennials.

The disconnect is as old as time, argues Dan Schawbel, managing partner at Boston-based Workplace Intelligence, a workplace research and thought leadership firm. It stems from caricatures up and down the age ladder. In general, the older cohorts consider the younger ones lazy and the younger ones wonder why the older ones can’t keep up, especially when it comes to technology. This pigeonholing can taint the working environment—and potentially, businesses’ bottom lines.

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“It’s harder to get things done when there’s a lack of understanding and disconnection and people have different preferences in terms of communication and collaboration tools,” he explains. “We could write this story every 10 years. Every generation feels threatened by younger people.”

Vanessa Council has experienced positive ageism—assigned good attributes as a result of what generation she’s a part of.

“It’s mostly around social media and being classified as the resident ‘young person’—and I’m doing air quotes,” says the graphic designer from Rich Square, North Carolina. “At work, I’m the main source. I know a little bit, but I don’t consider myself an expert, I’m 29, so they figure I ought to know.”

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Council is frequently asked about what the hot trends are and what people her age like to do and watch. When she can’t answer a question about what’s popular or a new technology, her colleagues are surprised.

“I’m bemused. I’m usually just fine with it,” she explains. “I don’t think it’s being done in a malicious way. It’s being done in a we’re-trying-to-play-to-everyone’s-strengths way.”

Usually, age bias favors younger employees over older ones. The former have less work experience and can be paid less, companies often assume. The term “juniorization” is relatively new, but the fear of it happening has its roots in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The bias manifests itself in not only layoffs of certain employees, but also what job applicants are invited for interviews or callbacks. For example, a University of Kansas Medical Center whistle-blower was fired after he revealed he was told to hire mainly young people for the IT department. (Last year, KUMC settled the retaliation lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)

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It’s mostly around social media, being classified as the resident ‘young person.’ ”

Vanessa Council, 29, graphic designer

In contrast, also last year, an Australia Post licensee got into trouble after including this line in an online job listing: “Unfortunately, the successful applicant will not be an over entitled millennial with an inflated sense of entitlement.”

“Sometimes, it seems intentional and sometimes, it’s because you’re not top of mind. You’re disregarded. You’re not a priority in their mind,” says Steinhardt, the 32-year-old who has dealt with ageism repeatedly. “For my mental health, I process it the same way, whether I’m dealing with sexism, or being taken seriously in a technical role when I’ve come from marketing, or with ageism. I live by ‘treat people with respect,’ ‘don’t make assumptions about what they know or don’t know based on age,’ and I try to state, whenever I can, depending on the culture of the company I’m in, what I’m experiencing.”

Why stereotypes persist

The stereotypes don’t always translate into reality, according to Jessica McManus Warnell, an associate teaching professor of management and organization at the University of Notre Dame. Often what we hear about millennials is simply magnified by the very technologies that digital natives are accused of being obsessed with.

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“‘Here come the millennials. Watch out. They’re going to need gluten-free pizza.’ They were positioned as a threat,” she explains. “When it’s time to hire, these preconceived notions are on the table. Both sides need to do better.”

In 2016, millennials became the largest generation in the U.S. workforce—54 million versus 53 million Gen Xers—according to the Pew Research Center. Instead of boomers complaining about Gen X slackers or the Greatest Generation mocking the rebellious boomers, the new powerhouse cohort has to deal with jokes about avocado toast and take blame for “killing” everything from breakfast cereal to homeownership.

Now, millennials—the oldest of whom are turning 40 this year—have to start getting used to being the not-so-young cohort as Gen Zers graduate from college and enter the labor force themselves.

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“Millennials have to cultivate that same sensitivity that they’re demanding from their senior colleagues,” Warnell says. “They need to be mindful of maintaining that with their juniors.”