Leia was fresh out of college when began working as a member of a business-development team at a mid-size tech company. Though her skills had earned her the job, she was the youngest person in the team. “Everybody else was pretty much twice my age,” she says. Leia went into the job with gusto, identifying inefficiencies and suggesting how to streamline things. Some of those working above her didn’t like that.
“I exhibited ‘too much ambition’ in the eyes of my superiors,” she says. “I heard about comments being made behind my back. There were a couple times when my superiors referred to my age right in front of me, saying I was too young: ‘What does a 23-year-old know about these things?’”
Leia, whose surname is being withheld for privacy concerns, tried to change things by altering her appearance at work. “It was like, what can I do to mitigate them not taking me seriously? I changed the way I dressed. I tried to dress older, more ‘ladylike’. I changed my mannerisms and tried to act older,” she says. “It worked, to an extent.” The comments about her age and perceived inexperience lessened, but Leia says she still felt like her growth potential was limited. She left the company soon after.
What Leia experienced was ageism, traditionally seen as something only older people face. For instance, older workers might be judged based on assumptions that they won’t fit into a progressive office dynamic or learn technology as quickly. That phenomenon certainly exists; a US study showed that nearly two-thirds of workers aged 45 and older had seen or experienced age discrimination. But younger workers face age discrimination, too. In fact, new research shows it may actually be the youngest team members who are bearing the brunt of workplace ageism right now, potentially impacting on their careers.
Reverse ageism is real – and worse than ever
There’s no question age discrimination is a problem affecting older workers, says Michael North, an assistant professor of management and organisations at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “But doesn’t it cut both ways? The answer is a resounding yes,” he says.
According to data from a study to be published in August in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, co-authored with Stéphane P Francioli, North says it could be argued that ageism is “a slightly worse problem targeting the young”.
Traditional workplace hierarchy prizes seniority, with older staff on top and younger workers who start out on the bottom rung expected to climb the ladder over time. More recently, as technology has changed the way companies operate, older workers have been stereotyped (erroneously, recent research indicates) as less adaptable, slower learners – a major driver of the more commonly-recognised kind of ageism.
Older workers, meanwhile, have always had negative-leaning opinions about the young. North says it’s a “generational cycle” that goes back thousands of years; the ‘kids these days’ attitude has existed as long as there have been kids to criticise. In workplaces, this has traditionally translated into lower initial expectations of younger workers, who are expected to maintain a hard-working but humble profile as they learn the ropes from more experienced colleagues.
But the ageism today’s millennial and Gen Z workers are facing, North believes, is more acute – and derives from pervasive perceptions that they are entitled, lazy radicals. “In this case,” he says, “it’s not just a life-stage critique. This is something more extreme.”
In their study, Francioli and North asked respondents of all ages to rate their general feelings towards today’s younger adults and older people – and young adults came off poorly. “People seem to like even older adults, who people think are the primary targets of ageism, more than they like younger adults,” says North. Participants were also asked to compare today’s young people to previous cohorts. “Even when they reflect on young adults from the ‘40s, ‘60s, ‘80s, etcetera, people still harbour the coldest feelings toward today’s younger adults.”
When North and Francioli asked people what words sprang to mind about younger adults, some of the responses were more positive – words like “ambition”, “intelligence” and “tech-savvy”. But when it came to more negative terminology, says North, the number-one response was “entitled”, with “coddled”, “disrespectful” and “radical” also used repeatedly.
Organisational expert Lauren Stiller Rikleen says that when she published her first book, on hiring and promotion, she was asked to speak at a wide variety of companies. “I noticed that everywhere I was speaking, in the question-and-answer portion it was always hostile questions about younger people entering the workplace,” she says, with words like “disloyalty” and “entitlement” used repeatedly.
Rikleen believes that the working habits of millennials and Gen Z, and their inclination to prioritise a work-life balance, may cause older people in management to chafe. “People judge others by their own standard. So, that senior person may have succeeded through the traditional measures of success: long hours, missing family events, constantly being in the workplace. When they see behaviours that aren’t similar – leaving work to go work out or for family dinner, taking health and wellness measures – the result can be a stereotype of, ‘Well, that person isn’t acting like I did’.”
When pre-conceived notions influencing broad dislike of millennial and Gen Z workers combine with traditional seniority structures, the result can be a workplace environment that holds young people back more than ever, negatively impacting on career trajectory, stunting progress and getting in the way of opportunities for mentorship and promotion.
“If people on senior levels are writing them off because of assumptions, the younger people won’t get the opportunities they need to succeed,” says Rikleen. “And that becomes a self-perpetuating cycle because they look around and think, ‘Nobody’s taking an interest in my career, I’m going to look elsewhere’. Then the senior person is like, ‘See? I knew it.’”
Rikleen believes that bringing attention to the problem of youth-related ageism will help organisations recognise it. “We have to start having more open conversations about this, as opposed to quiet rumbling,” she says. “We also have to recognise ageism in any direction as a bias. I’ve said this to people in older generations a lot: you’d never use the language you’re using if you were talking about race or gender. But because you’re talking about young people, there’s a sense that you can just say it and it’s OK. We have to acknowledge the ageist way in which people talk as a real bias, and one that needs to be treated that way in the workplace.”
That means companies need to incorporate it into training and policy on other biases, educating staff and leadership on the issue and arming employees with resources to address it.
The good news is that, in many industries, if workers can stick it out long enough, they may hit a kind of mid-career ‘sweet spot’ where their abilities and credentials aren’t being questioned. Though for some, cautions Rikleen, that moment might be coming later than it used to.
“I think even in workplaces where younger workers are criticised there’s often a traditional mentality of, ‘Oh, they’ll settle down when they have their first kid, or get a mortgage,’” she says. “For a lot of today’s young people, that’s happening later and later.”
Leia, who left the corporate world to found a marketing start-up, says eliminating ageism entirely will ultimately require a fundamental change to corporate culture, which has long tied seniority to skill.
“We prize years of experience a little too much, and I don’t think years of experience and skill are necessarily correlated,” she says. “Steve Jobs was 21 when he founded Apple. We don’t know how much younger people actually have to contribute. Hopefully, more employers are realising it.”