“With jobs scarce, age becomes an issue,” a 2009 Wall Street Journal headline declared.
You’re likely familiar with ageism or age discrimination — the Age Discrimination Act (ADEA) of 1967 made it illegal to discriminate against job candidates and employees over the age of 40. That protects them from companies making decisions such as hiring, promotions, layoffs, firing, job responsibilities and other aspects of employment based on or taking into account their age. But what about reverse ageism?
"Companies don't like [layoffs by seniority], but [they're] also the easiest to defend," Gerald Hathaway, co-chairman of Littler Mendelson, said in the Wall Street Journal article. "If you have a bona fide seniority system it's a defense for any type of discrimination.”
He was explaining why layoffs tended to occur more among a young demographic (Millennials) during the recession — because unlike employees over 40, they weren’t and still aren’t a protected group.
Targeting younger employees for layoffs because they can’t, in essence, “fight back” is an extreme example of reverse ageism, but there are also plenty of more subtle instances of this concept in everyday practice. Perceiving an employee's abilities and qualifications based on her appearing young is another example. Assuming that this person is incapable of performing the tasks associated with her job — again, solely based on her again — takes it a step further.
Because ageism is illegal and reverse ageism, targeted younger employees, is not, these younger workers often do face difficulties at work, sometimes because employers fear lawsuits from older employees who might claim age discrimination if they are fired or laid off. Moreover, older employees often have greater financial obligations, such as providing for their children, that younger employees don’t face, so employers sometimes reason that “it wouldn’t matter as much” for members of the latter group to lose their jobs.
In the 2004 decision General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline, the Supreme Court held that the ADEA only protected workers over the age of 40 and did not apply to younger employees who claimed they had been discriminated against because of their relatively younger age.
If you’re facing reverse ageism in the workplace, you’re often cognizant of it. Here are some signs it might be occurring.
1. During rounds of layoffs, it’s primarily the younger employees who lose their jobs, even if they’re competent — in some cases more so than their older counterparts.
2. Younger employees are frequently the target of seemingly innocuous or “playful” insults — “youngun,” “youngster,” “kiddo,” “were you even alive during such-and-such time?” and so on.
3. Older employees tend to have the floor in meetings, while younger employees are talked over or ignored.
4. Promotions and salaries have more to do with seniority than ability.
5. Younger employees, even those who consistently perform well, are not trusted with important responsibilities.
6. The company tends to favor older candidates during the hiring process.
7. Starting salaries and benefits are more favorable for older employees, even if they don’t have industry or relevant experience, than younger ones.
It can feel like an uphill battle if you’re dealing with reverse ageism at work. How can you make yourself invaluable to the company and your team when nobody seems to be taking you seriously? Still, there are both small and large steps you can take to tackle the problem head-on.
You want to be as knowledgeable as possible when it comes to the business and industry. That way, you can be more helpful to your own team — you’ll understand how the pieces fit together and why your role matters (or should matter). Moreover, you may find a better niche in another department, which can help you further your career. If layoffs do occur, having knowledge of other positions can help you stay, if you’re willing to take on different responsibilities.
Even if the company’s dress code is on the more lenient side, it’s important to look professional — perhaps even more so than your older colleagues. Wearing jeans and a tee-shirt will feed into their stereotypes about kids today. Instead, opt for something on the more business-casual end — taking into account the company dress code, of course.
Or at least an older ally at work. This person can be a sounding board, help you navigate the organization and structures within it and show other colleagues that you’re a serious member of the team.
Part of being seen as indispensable involves making yourself indispensable. Taking a course or gaining a certification will make you better equipped to do your current job, as well as help you climb your way up the ladder. An employee with a diverse skill set is more valuable to the company and less likely to face a layoff.
There are some things nobody likes doing, but if you volunteer to take them on, even if you don’t have to, you’ll be seen as a team player.
Don’t feed into negative stereotypes about your generation. Show that you’re your own person regardless of when you were born and that you can and will take on challenging and even grunt work.
It’s particularly helpful to have a skill that others in the workplace don’t so you become the go-to for that particular responsibility. For example, you might know how to solve a particular tech problem.
Above all else, give your job your absolute all. Don’t be the last one to arrive or the first one to leave — this will confirm older employees' and managers’ perceptions of your generation. Do your job and do it well.
Don’t let others’ ideas about your age or generation get in the way of your goals. Instead, prove them wrong by continuing to boost yourself and work toward achieving them. Who knows? When they see how hard you’re working and how much you want to succeed, they may come around.