Will Millennials Be the Generation to End Ageism?

Feb 13, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: StyleCaster

When we talk about millennials and ageism, we’re typically talking about generational stereotypes that suggest millennials are lazy, entitled and unreliable. Companies have admitted being reluctant to hire people under the age of 30, who are accused of being socially inept and without a set of values after being raised on social media.

But perhaps the millennial fear shouldn’t be just about ageism toward their youth (especially since the oldest millennials are now in their mid-30s), but toward their inevitable trajectory toward “old.” Millennials have life expectancy estimates reaching into their 80s and more than 60percent of them doubt they’ll have money to retire… which means they’ll need to work. And work is becoming less stable: An estimated 35 percent of workers are part of what's being called the "gig economy," a workforce with no employee benefits like health insurance, 401k matches or vacation time. A third of millennials expect they’ll work until their 70s and an eighth assume they’ll work until they die, which is fine and dandy, except that the workforce for older people isn’t exactly a utopia right now.

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Some of the language of ageism might look startlingly familiar to you. “There are a lot of ads that call for digital natives and are either coded or explicit making clear that they want someone who is not long out of school,” Ashton Applewhite, ageism expert and author of This Chair Rocks, told me. Shockingly, long-term unemployment rates are at 33 percent for workers 55 and older. “The personal and economic consequences are devastating. If we can’t support ourselves, who is going to take care of us?”

In fact, two-thirds of working adults between 45 and 74 say ageism has affected them, which coincides with the fact that age-discrimination suits have been on the rise in the last decade. And what’s considered “old” is only getting younger in some sectors. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allows lawsuits to be filed for ageism at age 40. But as Applewhite notes in her TED talk, “In Silicon Valley, engineers are getting Botoxed and hair-plugged before key interviews — and these are skilled white men in their 30s, so imagine the effects further down the food chain.”

All of which is to say it would do millennials like myself a huge favor to consider the impact of ageism toward older people now instead of later.

We have some things working in our favor: Millennials have been called the most diverse generation in history and are pushing employers toward more inclusive hiring practices. Unfortunately, most of us haven’t quite grasped that “age” should be a consideration in diversity. “When I asked people what they think of as criteria for diversity, they say race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and very few people say ‘age,’” Applewhite said. But when she brings it up, nobody dismisses it. “They smack their foreheads and go, ‘Obviously.’”

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But the momentum of pro-diversity practices is helpful. “Not only do different forms of prejudice reinforce and compound each other, hello intersectionality,” Applewhite said, “so do different forms of activism."

How do we begin to change the way our workplace looks at age? The first step is to start with ourselves, Applewhite says. We have to grapple with our own prejudices and misjudgments about age. “How do you use the words ‘old’ and ‘young’?” she says. “Transform yourself in order to change the world.”

Then, she says, pay attention to where messages about age are coming from and whom they benefit. In particular, she notes to pay attention to situations in which age is treated as an illness. “If aging is framed as a disease, we can be persuaded to buy stuff to ‘cure’ it.”

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And from a more tangible, action-based standpoint, make friends of all ages. “One way to approach that is to think of something you like to do or that’s important to you,” she said, “whether that’s community organizing or reading romance novels or gardening or hiking, and find a mixed-age group of people to do that with.”

If we want the work world to be friendly to us, the gig-economy, work-until-we-die generation, it would suit us well to start making the workplace more age-friendly while we have the power — rightly earned or not — of youth on our sides. As Applewhite notes, youth is a privilege none of us can keep forever.

“We shouldn’t age out of having value as human beings,” she told me. “What world do you want to grow old in?”

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