Admit it: you have age-related biases. You’re not alone. Surveys suggest that a majority of respondents experience age-related discrimination, and a majority of respondent believe some age-related stereotypes are true. In other words, most people experience discrimination and dish it out, too!
The workplace is not immune. Many of us are guilty of assuming that older workers “can’t keep up with the times,” or that younger workers “haven’t been around the block enough times yet.”
What makes ageism truly unique is that, unlike racism or sexism which target particular societal groups, ageism targets everyone at some point. Nearly every one of us will experience different decades of life from our childhood years all the way through our 70s. Thus every one of us is likely to experience ageism from both sides of the coin.
But consider for a moment these human achievements:
- Age 23: Mark Zuckerberg becomes the world’s youngest self-made billionaire
- Age 25: Benjamin Franklin opens the first public library
- Age 26: Einstein publishes the theory of relativity
- Age 38: Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon
- Age 51: Leonardo da Vinci paints the Mona Lisa
- Age 64: Laura Ingalls Wilder publishes her first novel
- Age 70: Benjamin Franklin signs the Declaration of Independence
All achieved extraordinary success at remarkably different ages. Ben Franklin did it twice.
Age stereotypes are not universally true. Associating age to success in the workplace is isolationist and counter-productive.
How do we stop listening to the age biases inside of our own heads?
Listen to what your colleague has to say without judging the content in your mind. Save judgment for later. Allow everyone the space to brainstorm and to suggest solutions. At age 22, few cared to listen to Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas. At age 26, Hollywood made a movie about him. What changed was not the man, but the willingness of others to consider his ideas seriously.
Consider Colleague’s Strengths and Magnify Them
When you actively listen, you’re able to build a mental Rolodex of good ideas from each contributor. Soon, you’ll learn each person’s strengths and weaknesses, with age never a factor. You can magnify each contributor’s strength by encouraging them in their field of expertise.
Take “Years of Experience” with a Grain of Salt
Don’t grant someone expertise because they have seniority. Just existing for x number of years isn’t a qualification for anything except perhaps a Social Security check. I’ve met people with 25+ years of experience whose work output is unimpressive. They worked their way up the corporate ladder with time and loyalty, not with strength and ingenuity. I’ve met millennials fresh out of college, or just a couple of years into their careers, who blow minds with natural ability and creativity. I have mentors who earned my respect through vast life experience, and other mentors who awe me with natural talent. Neither group cleanly fits into an age group.
Set the Example
When you talk about your expertise, don’t focus on the number of years you’ve been doing something. Instead, give real examples of what you have accomplished.
Assume you are a marketing superstar.
Here’s an unoriginal and misleading way to start your resume or sales pitch: “Email Marketing expert with 12 years experience.” All this tells me is that you’ve been taking a paycheck for a long time.
Here’s a results-focused way to start your resume or sales pitch: “I’ve built over 200 email marketing campaigns, with 90% of my campaigns beating industry benchmarks for click-through rate. Simply put, I know how to get someone to open an email and take action.”
Guide conversations to be centered around results; dissuade undue focus placed on years of experience. As my husband likes to say: “You’re not special until you do something special.”
Care about what is right, not who is right
Experience and time aren’t to be entirely ignored. Time grants maturity to thoughts and exposure to situations from which each of us grows, learns, and adjusts. But some people are a much quicker study than others. Some can learn in one year what takes another person ten years to learn!
When you adopt a “what is right” focus instead of a “who is right” focus, then much like a 26-year-old Einstein would tell you: Age becomes relative.