Nothing But A Number: 4 Ways This Generation Can Combat Ageism At Work

Twentieth Century Fox

When it comes to our careers, Gen-Yers are very adventurous. We’re likely to work in as many as 20 fields in our lifetimes.

We were raised on a steady diet of economic instability and social change. So we communicate differently, think differently and, you guessed it, work differently.

As the most educated generation in history, we have qualifications people twice our age lack. Our degrees get us in the door and into senior roles much faster than the generations before us.

And those generations before us aren't always happy about it. This fact compels many young people to hide or lie about their ages in interviews.

Age discrimination is usually associated with older workers. But it poses a real dilemma for young professionals, too. If you’re under 30 and in a position of authority over people who are considerably older than you, you’ve probably heard sentiments like these before:

"He’s just a child! He can’t possibly know what he’s doing."

"She may have degrees, but she has no experience. Experience counts for much more than a piece of paper!"

You might get the sudden urge to strangle your colleagues when they hiss such biased, closed-minded thoughts about you. But workplace violence is probably not going to get you anywhere except fired.

In true leadership fashion, your best option is to put yourself in your staff’s shoes. Try to understand what’s bugging them.

Then, figure out how to turn it around.

Ageism against younger workers is prejudice, but it’s not surprising. If you have up to four generations of employees in one office, there’s bound to be some conflict. Each generation has different ideas about what’s important, how things should be done and what kind of rewards they should get for their work.

With that in mind, here are some simple, effective things you can do to ease the tension, gain respect and highlight your contributions (instead of your age) at the office:

1. Show an interest in what matters to your colleagues.

Older generations place more emphasis on family life, mostly because they have families of their own. So you might get some side-eye for your perpetual singledom, and your colleagues may be shocked to learn you don’t want children.

Don’t let your differences define the way they see you.

Take the high road, and show an interest in what’s important to them. Try to learn the names of their kids.

Ask about little Tyler every now and then. Mention you’d like to meet him sometime. Ask Tim how he met his wife. Ask Paula, who’s been happily married to Chris for 10 years, for relationship advice.

I’m not suggesting you get all up in other people’s business. But people respond more positively if they feel like you give a sh*t about what matters to them.

You can change the way your colleagues see you when you acknowledge their values are important, even if you may not share them. 

2. Be considerate and patient when it comes to technology.

While you may have grown up on ICQ (Remember that?) and MSN, it’s useful to remember your older colleagues may not be as comfortable around technology as you are.

You might think a simple text is more convenient than a phone call. They might think it’s rude you didn’t take the time to have a conversation. You prefer to share files on Dropbox, but they may prefer you email it (or even print it out).

You might have (great) ideas about how to make everyday life at the office more efficient. But if your colleagues cannot keep up, your plan to save time might backfire. Instead, try to remember some workers are still adapting to the things you may take for granted.

Suggest regular IT training sessions for those who need it the most. Before you employ a platform you’re familiar with, talk to your colleagues and find out what they might prefer.

Try to reach a reasonable compromise. It might mean spending more time on a task than you would have liked, but it’s better for the end result if everyone on the team can fully participate.

3. Give the people what they want, not what you think they want.

We judge others by our own standards. So sometimes, we wrongly assume our colleagues all want the same things out of work that we do, like a sense of fulfillment, flexibility and stimulation.

In reality, our colleagues with mortgages and mouths to feed are much more focused on commissions, bonuses and pension plans. If you’re in a position to offer compensation for a job well done, put some thought into it.

You might be satisfied with some time off as a reward. But a gift voucher or an add-on to her commission may be more Paula’s speed. While traveling to that overseas conference may be your idea of a great opportunity, Tim might find it more difficult to be gone all weekend, away from his kids.

At the very least, ask your colleagues what they want in terms of perks and compensation. Don’t just assume they appreciate all the same things you do.

4. Prove yourself.

The key cause of tension in the workplace when it comes to younger staff is usually the fact the older ones don't believe you can get the job done. You might argue your qualifications, strenuous interview process and rigorous testing should be enough to quell any doubts.

But the people you manage did not recruit you. As far as they’re concerned, you need to prove your worth. If you’re good at your job and enjoy what you do, this should come naturally.

Just make sure it does not go unnoticed.

There’s a fine line between proving your worth and showing off. You don't need to be extravagant. Simply be punctual at meetings, open to different ideas and clear about your contributions.

Through your actions, demonstrate you have more than just a degree. You have a sense of professionalism, respect for your team and the skills needed to get the job done. At the end of the day, that’s all people really need to know.

These techniques are great if you work with reasonable, level-headed folks. But if you have to deal with jealous, bitter people who grab every opportunity to belittle or dismiss you, all the tricks in the book won’t help.

Emotional abuse in the workplace is not unheard of. Younger people may also seem like easy targets, particularly if the office is small because there is little or no HR support.

In that case, it may be best to re-evaluate if the job experience is worth it.

And if the stress of a hostile work environment is getting the better of you, there is no shame in tapping out. The thing about our generation is that if we’re unhappy in a job, we’re going to up and leave.

It’s not because we’re too spoiled to cope. It’s because we know what we deserve, and we won’t settle for less.

We shouldn’t have to.