When we think of ageism in the workplace we tend to think of older people – but it’s a significant problem for younger people too.
So what are the experiences of people who have run into this kind of ageism – and what can we do about it?
“I experienced age discrimination until I was about 33 as I was ahead of my peer group in terms of job roles,” says a leading retail director. “I fast-tracked up the career ladder after joining a FTSE 50 graduate scheme. In the first four or five years, this meant I was in roles that were classed as senior for my age. Often my direct reports and contemporaries had 10 years or more of experience.” This is when the director experienced some of the clearest discrimination which was mainly directed “at my competence to do the role – along the lines of, ‘what would she know, she’s only 24’ and even as blatant as ‘she’s got my job’.” The discrimination was also from people who were ‘maybe only two or three years older but had been in the company since they were 18 and had worked their way up the ladder over a few years.”
Ageism can cause emotional as well as career upset. “I found it very difficult; the criticism was hard to take, and lack of emotional intelligence on my part in the early days meant I saw it as a criticism of my ability to do my job rather than understanding that in general, it wasn’t personal.” Rather, “it was my colleagues” own insecurity about their roles when they had lots of experience and I didn’t. I’m not afraid to admit it caused me stress and anxiety but also made me determined to prove my worth.”
To deal with it, “I would ask my detractors for advice and input into the strategies I was creating for them. I would then reflect their ideas in my programmes, perhaps with a little tweak, and namecheck them when presenting to the teams. It showed I respected their opinions and experience and that I wasn’t afraid to give them credit for them while I led the strategy. It was also a great way of learning from my colleagues’ experiences.”
Thinking outside the box
But these mature methods of handling ageism shouldn’t be needed in the workplace – it should not be there to start with. How can we get rid of such prejudices? Identifying the problem at an educational and recruitment level is key, says Dan Kelsall, Founder at Vonkel. “There’s discrimination at work because employers are weak at identifying and developing young people who don’t fit narrow and often outdated criteria.” Consider the recruitment process, Kelsall says. “Almost always, recruitment starts with a written statement. It favours people who are good academically or good with language.” But there are many very able and talented young people who don’t fit this selection process. “We need to recognise young talent with drive and develop them; it’s not always about being academically excellent once you’re in work.”
Because this recognition process doesn’t exist, Kelsall argues, we are left with a skills gap. “For example, 10% of the population are diagnosed as dyslexic. The true number is likely to be much higher as dyslexia (and associated conditions such as dyspraxia) can go undiagnosed.” Employers need to look at different channels to identify good people, Kelsall says; “how things are at the moment is causing swathes of young people to be regarded as average or below, and this is institutional ageism on a huge scale.” The seriousness of this problem is revealed in the figures – of the 1.53 million unemployed in the UK, almost a third are between the ages of 16-24. Unlock this talent and there is huge opportunity for employers. “The Vonkel app enables young people to post video CVs to potential employers, circumventing the need for strong writing skills but also offering something that differentiates the candidate from the crowd.”
For the EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission), “Britain is fortunate to have a strong equality and human rights legal framework to protect people from discrimination and violations of their basic rights and freedoms.” However, “the experiences of many people across England, Scotland and Wales often do not reflect what is set out in law.” The EHRC sees its role as “to make these rights and freedoms a reality for everyone.” It does this at a very practical level, “by providing advice and guidance to individuals, employers and other organisations,” but it also uses its powers in “reviewing the effectiveness of the law and taking legal enforcement action to clarify the law” when there are “significant breaches of rights.”
It’s important to draw a distinction between ageism and the need for experience. “There are roles where having life experience is essential; it’s not discriminatory to recognise that,” says a foster care manager. “Some people are naturally very empathetic at an early age but others are not, and it can cause you anxiety as a recruiter because people are aiming for experienced roles at a very young age.” Disentangling prejudice is a complex issue. “I have shied away from putting levels of responsibility onto young people, and I have to ask myself – am I being responsible to them and the role, or am I being discriminatory?”
There are no straightforward answers and we have to ask ourselves serious questions. Is it a form of unconscious ageism against young people to reward employees for long service, for example? In other words, as a society do we do things that are ageist without even realising it? “People do make instant judgements about those who are young or appear very young,” says the manager. However, things are improving, particularly since the Equality Act was legislated for in 2010. “If you are ageist in the workplace nowadays, people will jump on it. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. As a result we’re seeing a significant reduction in ageism against young people.”
Steps to take to overcome ageism at work
- Don’t take it personally. ‘Address it in a positive way and don’t get angry,’ says the retail director. ‘Learn from your colleagues and senior management and try to understand their motivation for the discrimination. Are they in fear for their role? Do they feel undermined or overlooked? Can you support them in their career aspirations and vice versa?’
- Be professional. ‘If you are good at your job but appear unprofessional to others, it can trigger ageist responses,’ says the foster care manager. ‘It seems unfair, but this is the reality. By showing that you are a professional, responsible person who understands the ethos of the company, you can head off potential issues before they become problems.’
- Be aware of the legislation. Under the Equality Act 2010 it is illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of age (with some very few, specific exceptions.) You have the right to a workplace free of ageism and your employer should take any complaint seriously.
- Take steps if you are discriminated against. You can complain to your employer informally and then formally; ask for mediation; and if a satisfactory outcome is still not delivered, make a claim to the Employment Tribunal. Be aware that the latter route is time-consuming and there are fees involved. EHRC has useful help pages.
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.