Ageism – The Last Acceptable form of Discrimination

Because I’ve been focusing on coaching for Millennial managers, I have been wading into the seamy side of intergenerational issues.

There was an iconic saying of the 60’s, “never trust anyone over 30”. Today, the very generation that coined that phrase is long past the age they once distrusted. They are in the position of managing, evaluating, promoting, hiring and firing those under 30, sometimes called the Millennial generation. So, should Millennials trust anyone over 30?

Though there are significant cultural differences between generations in the workforce today, a topic many writers have tackled already, the question is really not about age. Imagine for a minute that you were at work and someone said, “he speaks a different language, so his opinions aren’t important to listen to.” Or, “Her skin is a different colour than ours, so she’s not going to the training session.” Perhaps this does happen in your workplace – but if it does, I bet there is an HR policy or at the very least a workplace law that gives you recourse to fight it.

But what about when you hear someone say, “he’s only 26 years old. He’s not ready for that position.” “He hasn’t had enough experience yet, he’s so young.” Or more likely, “young people today don’t have what it takes to…” or “that generation is etc.” It goes the other way, too: “he’s too old to understand.” “she’ll never go for this new technology – she’s too stuck in the old ways of doing things.” We are even reinforcing Ageism through media – newspapers doing op-ed pieces on the failures of the Millennial Generation, and Blogs railing about the Boomer Generation.

I call this Ageism, the last acceptable form of discrimination in our culture. It flows through our thoughts like water, acceptable, reasonable, justified. We pass it on, ironically, from generation to generation like learning how to tie your shoes.

So, here’s an experiment to try to see how deeply Ageism goes in you:

Imagine that all other forms of discrimination we now abhor once felt just as acceptable and reasonable to the people who held them. Armed with this disturbing perspective, the next time you are working with someone of a different age, either older or younger, ask yourself what assumptions you hold about this person – listen to the statements that go through your head about them and that will tell you what your assumptions are. Listen especially closely for age-related or generation-related assumptions.

Then play the game of assuming the complete opposite.

Now, behave as if that opposite perspective is just as true as the assumptions you started out with true just to see what happens.

If you assume the person is too young to understand how to manage a team, or too old to have ideas about personal branding on the internet, assume the opposite and see what happens.

More importantly, start from an assumption that any person, regardless of his or her age, is smart and capable. Once you’re in that perspective everything else will probably be related to lack of confidence, technical knowledge or opportunity. Those can all be fixed if your intent is right. And more importantly, you now have access to the ideas and energy and help of a significantly higher number of smart, capable people than you allowed yourself to have before.

Is this an easy or difficult experiment for you? Can you give up Ageism? It’s important that you try, because changing all our minds starts with you.