TV Land’s Younger has been tackling ageism for six seasons. The show began with Sutton Foster playing a 40-year-old woman, Liza Miller, who pretends to be a millennial to get an entry-level publishing job and has since evolved to tackle ageism in all manners.
In the most recent season, Hilary Duff’s character, Kelsey Peters, becomes the publisher of an imprint and experiences the other side of ageism: the idea that being a 20-something makes her too young and inexperienced to be the boss. And although this isn’t true (here’s an excellent example), Duff’s character makes a “young” mistake—drunkenly posting an inappropriate video to her social media profile—and quickly loses her publisher role. The Younger writers likely made this choice for plot-moving purposes, but the result makes it seem as though Kelsey was too young and inexperienced to hold the high-powered position—and this is a problem.
We all make assumptions based on perceived age, whether we intend to or not, and these assumptions can quickly turn into discrimination. Rather than treating age as a value based on experience, we need to recognize it for what it is: a number, nothing more.
There are plenty of senior employees who are defying the odds, starting new careers, or breaking into digital, and on the other hand, there are plenty of young employees who are taking on entrepreneurship or c-suite roles and doing so successfully. Here’s what we can learn from the young leaders of today:
Leadership isn’t defined by age
Studies show that members of Generation X make up more than 31 percent of the total U.S. income and make up 55 percent of the country’s startup founders. They are in the prime of their careers, so it’s not surprising that they’re earning more money than millennials, but for how long? The younger generations are often stereotyped (millennials are “entitled and lazy”; members of Generation Z are “digitally obsessed and antisocial), but the reality is: They’re shaping the landscape of future work, and arguably, for the better.
By 2020, millennials will make up half of the American workforce and studies show that this group of employees are prioritizing learning, health and wellness, financial well-being, and sustainability in the workplace, more so than the generations before and after them.
Members of Generation Z are new to the workforce, but more than 80 percent believe failure contributes to innovation, 97 percent are open to (and prefer ongoing) feedback, and 72 percent prefer face-to-face communication at work, which proves that not all young employees are glued to their phones.
Regardless of our perceptions, these new generations are making important (and necessary) strides for the betterment of all. And instead of disregarding these new leaders—or criticizing them—we should try and learn from them. This Generation X CEO, for example, purposely hired a millennial to mentor him.
Age-based assumptions can be changed
We make age-based assumptions on a daily basis. When a younger and older person visit a restaurant, we often assume the older person will pay. When a sales team arrives for a presentation, we often assume the eldest one is the highest-ranked employee or the manager.
The problem surfaces when we act on these assumptions—when we place a check in front of the older person or when we ask the eldest salesperson the most pressing questions. Our actions aren’t just disrespectful, they’re ultimately destructive. We aren’t giving these individuals the benefit of the doubt; we’re making decisions based on assumptions.
As Howard Ross, Founder of Cook Ross Inc, says, “Unconscious perceptions govern many of the most important decisions we make and have a profound effect on the lives of many people in many ways.... Unconscious patterns can play out in ways that are so subtle they are hard to spot.”
Want to eliminate ageism? Address your own age-based assumptions. When you receive a job application, disregard the graduation year. When you see a seasoned professional applying for an assistant position, consider why: maybe they’re shifting careers, maybe they want less responsibility, maybe they just love the company.
As someone who’s earned three promotions in less than five years, all before the age of 26, I have learned that age is irrelevant in the workplace. Sure, the longer you work in a field, the more experience you might have, but that doesn’t mean you or your colleagues are best suited for the role.
I have no doubt that Liza and Kelsey, in the next season of Younger, will continue to defy the ageist odds—and so will you. Before you complain about ageism, consider your own thoughts and actions. Be an advocate, ask questions, and above all, be open to learning from those who are both older than you and younger than you. You really never know what someone is capable of until you ask.