Reverse Ageism, Fact, or Fiction?

written by Greta George, Women’s Business Club Intern

What is reverse ageism?

When we think of ageism, we often relate it to prejudice towards older workers. What if I told you that this is also faced by young adults? It’s a phenomenon rarely discussed and is often described as reverse ageism.

Reverse ageism is associated with discrimination and biased perceptions of young adults in workplaces. Much like ageism, young adults may face unwelcome remarks. This can be on their age and skill set, throwing doubt towards their competencies, regardless of qualifications and abilities. It is the view that a young employee’s skill can be determined simply by their age.

The evidence:

There is mounting research that suggests reverse ageism is relevant and apparent within the workplace. A study published in 2019 found a higher percentage of young workers reported ageism within their workplaces, compared to their older counterparts. Glassdoor’s Diversity and Inclusion Survey of 2019 also found the same results, with 52% of young employees aged between 18 and 34 being more likely to have witnessed and/or experienced ageism at work, in contrast to 39% of employees aged 55+.  What’s even more interesting is that the likelihood of young adults aged between 18 and 34 that witnessed and/or experienced age, gender, race, or LGBTQ identity discrimination, is greater than those aged 55+.

What does this mean for younger workers?

Young adults may feel the pressure to ‘prove’ their value within the business whilst feeling like an ‘outsider’ amongst their colleagues (commonly recognised as imposter syndrome). They may feel the need to work longer hours, take on more tasks than they can shoulder, or be afraid to voice their opinions. Unsurprisingly, the toll on one’s mental health, particularly self-esteem, could be high.

Reverse ageism can take the form of superficially innocent remarks, often masked as jokes on age such as “wow, you’re good at this for a 22-year-old” or “I’ve been doing this since before you were born,” even “I’ve been doing this whilst you were in nappies.”

It could equally be in the context of being overlooked for promotions or job opportunities. This may be because businesses subconsciously favour older applicants over young adults deemed ‘untrustworthy’ with important tasks.

Preventing reverse ageism within the workplace:

Whether ageism is directed towards the younger or older generations, studies have shown that it can impact employees’ commitment to their work. A lack of commitment may lead to lower performance and retention levels. In terms of the employees themselves, this could mean missed opportunities for any career advancements. It creates unnecessary hurdles for both the company and the employees, slowing down the innovation potential.

One big step moving forward is to establish training and education throughout the company. It enables us to quickly catch and eliminate reverse ageism. This can apply to all kinds of discrimination. If you know what to look out for, then it’s more likely that you can differentiate between what’s right and wrong.

If reverse ageism does slip through the net, then there should be appropriate policies in place. This way you can go through the appropriate channels and report the incident without fear of judgement. Employees should be urged to speak about their experiences which will help to alleviate some workplace stress.

Lastly and arguably one of the most important points, don’t be a bystander, if you see it happen, call it out! There is nothing more disheartening than someone who witnesses discrimination and fails to make a stand against it.

Reverse ageism is evident within workplaces but we often fail to recognise it as an issue. If you take one thing from this article, let it be that the person who breaks the cycle of assumptions, well, it could be you!

Interesting reads:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecarter/2016/11/01/why-so-many-millennials-experience-imposter-syndrome/

https://hbr.org/2020/11/gg-ascend-pub-11-11-how-old-is-old-enough

https://www.forbes.com/sites/juliawuench/2021/11/02/how-to-combat-reverse-ageism-at-work/

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