Does age matter in the workplace?

I was asked my age during a job interview once and found myself asking, ‘is this relevant?’ I didn’t question the interviewer at the time – I was far too intimated by her Devil Wears Prada demeanour. But if you meet the skills an employer is looking for, should your DOB really affect your suitability for the job? 

It’s not that I have an issue with people asking my age. (If she’d done the maths, she could have easily worked it out from my CV). The fact is, I felt like I was being judged. And several years on, I’ve found myself in many more situations where I’ve felt my ‘perceived age’ (often 5-10 years younger) has affected how other people treat me. And I know I’m not alone. Whether you’re in your 20s or your 70s, ageism at work is rife.  

Did you hear about the story of comedian Jason Manford who asked his Facebook followers to help find his dad a job? He told his fans that his 62-year-old father was finding it near impossible to find a job due to his age. And unemployment among older workers is becoming a huge problem, especially among women.

“Knowledge, talent and ambition don’t disappear because people reach a certain age,” Caroline Abrahams of Age UK told the BBC, “so it is very disappointing that older workers face so many ageist barriers in the workplace.”

Forget the career ladder, millennials are taking the elevator

Millenials vs Baby Boomers

There are many reasons why Generation X and Baby Boomers are being potentially over-looked by employers. It’s widely recognised that millennials often come with greater tech skills and a driving ambition to fast-track the old-fashioned career ladder through entrepreneurship. And as this blog for the Huffington Post suggests, you can “forget the career ladder, millennials are taking the elevator”. So, is it any wonder Generation X and Baby Boomers feel threatened by this?

On the flipside, perhaps older really does mean wiser. Research by Spherion found that in 2017, 69 per cent of younger workers lack the business and life experience required for leadership positions. And in this piece on Medium, Caren Maio, CEO and cofounder of Nestio, argues that a workforce wholly run by Millenials will eventually hit challenges, simply because of their “lack of time spent on planet earth”.

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“…there’s a reason Mark Zuckerberg tapped generation X’er Sheryl Sandberg as COO and Hootsuite founder Ryan Holmes stacked his leadership team with players more than a few years his senior,” she says.

So perhaps a future of intergenerational business isn’t such a pipedream. In this piece for Forbes, Victor Lipman, an executive coach, argues that a successful company is one that adapts to each of its employees’ differences, whatever their age.  

And many would argue that corporate hierarchies are being challenged by the rise of a more collaborative leadership, anyway. Perhaps calling your leader ‘boss’ is simply outdated.

We shouldn’t feel threatened by taking leadership from someone younger than us – right?

Age in the workplace – the reality

I did an informal survey amongst other women in journalism and found that many had come up against age-related challenges in their industry:

“I recently worked with a guy only around a decade older than me and he kept referring to me as a youngster. I half-jokingly called him out on it and he apologised.”

“I’ve managed people 10 to 15 years older than me and the biggest challenge was finding the balance between conveying my respect for their experience and asserting my role in the organisation...I now work with a gentleman who is 92 – he’s one of the best managers I’ve ever had.”

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Meanwhile, some seemed to think age was a bigger challenge among women:

“People generally think I’m a decade younger than I am so I always drop my age into conversation. It may seem slightly odd but I if a woman looks young, there’s a tendency to be dismissed professionally and not taken seriously.”

While others challenged the idea of ageism in leadership:

“I don’t know why people get upset about being managed by someone younger. It’s about skills, not age. When you get older, you sometimes want to take a step back from too much responsibility and use your skills in a different way. We should all be open to that.”

Age and the future

Naturally, as Peter Cappelli, co-author of Managing the Older Worker, notes, managing someone older than you can lead to tension. And as this article reports, an increasing number of millenials are suffering from anxiety in the workplace and ‘Imposter Syndrome’.

So how do we tackle this and find intergenerational harmony at work?

Perhaps it’s a shift in attitudes. Perhaps we need to debunk the sweeping generalisations we attach to different age-groups. And perhaps, we just need to get over it and leave our ego at the door. 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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