Thriving at Work in an Ageist Culture — Tips for Old People from an Old Person
Does age discrimination exist in your workplace? Since your workplace mirrors the culture and in the US, youth is fetishized and aging is regarded with distaste, the answer is an unequivocal YES. Ours is a society in which the generations view one another with clucking disapproval and head-shaking disdain. A typical company may employ people with an age gap of 50 years, a veritable stew-pot of generational sturm und drang.
In the US, very young children are awed by older children and adults. By the time these children reach their tween years, anyone beyond their 20’s is viewed with pity by these same children. It’s a continuum — kids make fun of their parents who don’t know how to use Instagram, and parents make fun of their parents who don’t know how to attach photos to text messages. It’s not until one reaches the other end of the age spectrum, when the canopy of having still older people around is lost, that the good fun of ageism ends because there’s no one left to ridicule.
There’s lots written about how old people should present themselves when job hunting. Applicants are advised to remove college graduation dates from resumes and also drop the last 15 years of work experience, as if this fools anyone. Seeing a Social Anthropology major with no dates on a resume screams graduation during the Paleozoic Era, and it’s further cemented by the Times New Roman font and @aol.com email address.
If you’re savvy enough to adopt a trendy font, add a dash of color to your resume, and pick up a Zoho email domain, you may be able to disguise yourself well enough to be mistaken for a younger person and invited in-house for an interview. But then what do you do when you have to appear in person?
If you’re a man, you may think that forgoing a tie with your Dockers and blue blazer taps into the casual youth culture. The people interviewing you in shorts and tee shirts may think differently. In fact, they may take one look at you and calculate the shelf space they’ll lose in the communal kitchen by having to purchase senior snacks. They’ll have visions of your high fiber cereal and prune juice edging out their Cap’n Crunch and Coconut water. They’ll see someone to be avoided on a Foosball team. All your work to pose as a young ‘un will be for naught.
But certainly, you will be valued and sought after for your wisdom and experience, right? After all, tech companies are always looking for an “adult in the room” to enforce responsible decision-making. Yes and no. Left to their own devices, how many sentient 20-something entrepreneurs want to bring old people who can show them the ways of the world? The answer is zero. If you rephrase the question to, how many sentient 20-something entrepreneurs who are getting VC money and being forced to bring in adults want to bring in old people, the answer changes some. This is where your ditching the tie and packaging yourself as a cool older person comes in handy.
You might think that recent political skirmishes would change the conversation about ageism in society, but you’d be wrong. In the post-Obama political world, we have geriatrics leading each branch of government. Nancy Pelosi had to claw her way back into power and fend off the young congressional faction who wanted “fresh leadership.” When it turned out that Pelosi was uniquely qualified to discipline a tantrum throwing president, old people thought finally, society will now recognize the value of experience and the craftiness that comes only with age. Young people acknowledge that Pelosi shined, but shrug and opine that new congressional leadership would have been equally effective.
Instead of attempting to hide your age, embrace it with some caveats:
- Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone half your age who has the privilege to work with you. If a younger worker wouldn’t appreciate unsolicited advice delivered in a “been there, done that” manner, then change your approach. Offer advice when asked, but don’t bludgeon your recipients with it or offer it when it’s unsolicited. Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut and let mistakes happen that can then become a learning experience.
- Is your background relevant to today’s work environment? If not, it’s on you to upgrade your skill set and make your advice impactful. Learn new technologies and approaches that are relevant today. An understanding of the current state of the art coupled with your previous background and wisdom is a powerful combination that will earn you respect in the workplace. Furthermore a polished resume that reflects current tech savviness will take you a lot further than attempting to hide your age.
- If you’re a naturally grumpy old person, make it work for you. Look how millennials fell hard for Bernie Sanders, who made no attempt to disguise his age or his ketchup-stained, rumpled persona. If you can’t become a charming curmudgeon and are unable to hide your natural inclination, don’t be surprised if there’s not much interest in hiring you, not because you’re old, but because of fear of high-friction interactions with you; everyone wants well-mannered and fun colleagues and it’s not an ageist issue.
- Don’t live in the past. Millennials and younger are unimpressed by your exploits with punch cards, unless you’re the one who figured out how to digitize them.
Seasoned experience and steady judgement can complement youthful exuberance and passion. A diverse workplace can lead to extraordinary decision-making and a rich culture. Bring on the Sriracha, with a side helping of Metamucil.