an opinion piece
This topic has been nagging at me for a while now. I started questioning notions of age bias about four years ago when I was a full-time student, working part-time as a law clerk (to gain experience) in a boutique Employment Law firm. We frequently had clients who were being “made redundant” – more often than not, these clients were mid-late fifties and in positions they had held for the past five years or more. They were often very experienced and determined people.
More recently, I have experienced similar issues even closer to home. Family members, who have been employed in the same industry for 25+ years, are being turned down for promotions, regularly being told they have been in the industry for too long, and again being made redundant, or being slowly pushed out using other, passive-aggressive methods.
On the flipside, here I am – aged 26, having spent nearly four fifths of my life in education systems, two university degrees and admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand – and I am struggling to get a job doing anything more than printing documents and bringing my boss coffee. I have to be careful with my complaints – I did choose to leave New Zealand and have been traveling on temporary work visas for the past few years, so it’s not like a company wants to invest too much time or money into developing my career only for me to leave the country a year later. But I have still come up against the barriers of inexperience – “you need New York experience” or “yes you’ve worked in New York, but you haven’t worked in Canada. It’s different here”. Seriously, I have a university education and you’re telling me because I’ve worked in one first-world English-speaking city and not another that all I am qualified to do is act as an answering phone for a highly paid suit.
I am not alone. Many millennials are overqualified and their skills underutilized. People say millennials feel a sense of entitlement in the workplace. I agree – we do. We are generally highly educated and often asked to perform menial tasks well-below our competency level. Our superiors are double our age, doubly experienced, but with half the education and no confidence when it comes to anything technology-based. We twenty-somethings often feel condescended; causing us to doubt our decisions around education and worry where our career path will lead. Obviously these are all sweeping generalizations, but having talked to a lot of people, both in my generation and my parents’, I know I am not alone in my thinking.
It’s a precarious situation. Our parents generation tend to stay in the same industry for as long as we can remember. They have a wealth of knowledge due to their abundance of experience, yet that experience makes them intransigent, too ripe, and they are slowly but surely being shown the door. Experience is a liability. Then here we are, eager to gain experience, knocking at a door that will not open. We are fresh, relevant and flexible, but this is perceived as being overconfident, unreliable and untested. Being inexperienced is a liability.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe the reason our parents generation are struggling to hold onto their jobs and my generation can’t find jobs is because the market is oversaturated. Maybe it has nothing to do with ageism or inexperience. Maybe it has to do with technology creating redundancies, or maybe our job satisfaction expectations are too high – there are plenty of jobs out there, we just don’t want to do them. Maybe it’s about money. Due to our parents lasting industry experience and longevity, they are earning wages which over the years, increase after increase, can no longer be justified. Businesses can pay us inexperienced millennials less to do the same job. Due to our high levels of education, we are demanding an income that is needed to pay back our hefty student loans and to get on the property ladder, but businesses can’t justify that kind of income for our kind of inexperience.
Age discrimination is one of the most socially accepted forms of bias in the workplace, while simultaneously being the hardest to substantiate. It’s like climate change: we all know it is happening, most of us are contributing to it, we will all be impacted by it one day, but it is easier to look the other way and pretend it isn’t happening. We need to find a way to reposition perceived negatives about inexperienced youngsters and wise, yet rigid, veterans. As newbies to the working world, we need mentors. The stubborn older generations can teach us a thing or two – they are wise, they’ve been there done that, they’ve experienced what we haven’t yet, and we need to respect them for that. Their wisdom and experience is invaluable to us, just as our fresh outlook, wild ideas and youthful energy is invaluable to them. Employing new, young faces and retaining experienced, loyal employees is mutually beneficial to all. All employees, whether young or old, need to feel appreciated. Veterans can feel valued as they are looked to for advice and to provide mentorship to new employees. Those inexperienced millennials will feel respected as they are worthy of someone’s time, and that time is being dedicated to helping them grow in their profession. Age should not be a factor. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, but at any age and any experience level, a willing and devoted employee is invaluable. They should be made to feel just that.