It’s easy to identify overt aggression in the workplace; swearing, screaming, and acts of physical violence, for example, are tangibly threatening to one's well-being. But what about these statements?
“Weren’t you ever trained to do this? Oh, right, this is your first job.”
“When I was your age, people put in real hours and didn’t care about a ‘work-life balance’”
“Do you really think social media is a skill worthy of your resume? That’s all your generation knows these days.”
“You’re a little young to lead this project but wait a few years and you’ll be ready, hon.”
These are ageist microaggressions—implicit comments about one’s perceived level of experience or maturity based on their age. They often stem from individual and generational biases about the competence, engagement, attentiveness, and commitment of another age group. Millennials and Generation Z, sometimes called Zoomers, are frequently excluded from the discussion about age discrimination, likely because they’re not protected by the Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA); however, they are equally as affected by age biases as their older coworkers. Being “too young” is as much of a reason for discrimination as being “too old.”
Not only are ageist microaggressions blatantly discriminatory, but they can also have lasting impacts on one’s sense of value and self-worth in the workplace. This is especially true for younger employees who are still finding their footing in their careers.
Jemma* is a 27 year old working in the environmental industry. She’s also the only woman in her office. When she was interviewed for the position, she says her now-manager asked three times if she needed to use the “little girl’s room” before they started. “I thought it was weird since no one has said it like that to me since I was 5,” she says, but in an effort to be polite, she didn’t respond to the inappropriate comment.
In the office, Jemma’s peers have 10–20 more years of experience than she does, and their interactions with her, or lack thereof, make her feel pressured to prove herself: She often feels left out of lunchtime conversations because she’s perceived as “too young” to understand the experiences of her colleagues, many of whom are parents, and she struggles to feel like she is the right culture fit for the job. It doesn’t help that Jemma’s manager has a daughter her age, and he regularly compares the two, which breaks down professional boundaries. “It has been very challenging to break my colleagues’ and clients’ misconceptions of my age,” Jemma says, noting that comments have been passed around her (“What is she doing here?” “Does she really need to be here?” And even, “do we need to pay her?”) that make her question her level of experience, abilities, and intelligence.
While this is significant in itself, the discussion of ageism and its impact on younger women would be incomplete without mentioning its intersectionality with sexism. Jemma says: “My job is very hands-on and requires some brute force. We are not the kind of office that dresses up in business attire because there’s so much field work to be done. My work clothes include jeans and a T-shirt since most of the sites I go to are filthy. But being a younger woman, I can't wear certain things that others can, like shorts. It can be 100 degrees out, but I can't wear them since it's ‘unprofessional.’” If Jemma does, coworkers make comments and insinuations about how “millennials” can’t properly grasp the concept of appropriate workplace attire.
Being at the receiving end of comments that misrepresent one’s level of competence every day can make it incredibly difficult for anyone to find true fulfillment in their career. According to an interview with Future Workplace research director Dan Schwabel in The Boston Globe, it can make younger employees feel as though they’re under-qualified or improperly suited for their jobs—a phenomenon called imposter syndrome—causing them to overwork themselves in effort to prove their worth. This has serious, detrimental effects. Schwabel says, “Employees who don’t disconnect experience more stress and anxiety, which leads to reduced productivity and a higher rate of burnout.”
Age-related microaggressions can also quickly become sexual harassment. According to a Affilia study by University of Pittsburgh researcher Rachel Gartner and Paul Sterzing of University of California-Berkeley, certain microaggressions faced by younger women, even if considered “low-level” offenses should be categorized as sexual violence because they “function as a potential ‘gateway mechanism’ to legally actionable offenses.“
We know this anecdotally to be true: Take Claire,* a recent college graduate working in hospitality. She says her middle-aged manager Mark would ask her to bartend during golf tournaments specifically because she was young, which he hoped would coerce older members into buying more drinks from her and “run up massive tabs.” He would ask her to dress in shorter skirts and skimpy tops to “show off her youth.” When Claire requested to answer phones and make reservations instead, Mark responded, “That’s for the older ladies. Not the pretty faces.” Such comments, often overheard by others working at the club, were never questioned. While they made Claire feel vulnerable and dispensable, her older colleagues simply laughed them off.
“Around noon a drunk golfer in his 50s came up to me and asked if I could stop making Bloody Marys and give him and his friends handjobs instead. He said that kind of work was ‘better suited for pretty faces like mine.’” Claire quit that day. She felt “degraded and worthless.” Now she works at a different club.
Her experience, though, is by no means uncommon. The concept of customer sovereignty leaves younger employees in the service industry feeling they have no right to stand up to unwanted comments or sexual advances by older patrons. Seventy-one percent of restaurant employees in the United States are women, the majority of them young and working for men. As of 2018, 90 percent of women in that industry reported experiencing sexual harassment of some form, whether through verbal microaggressions like Claire’s or unwanted physical advances.
Although these two experiences with ageism are quite different from one another, they share one important element: making their victims feel invisible, overlooked, and silenced. According to Gina Torino, a professor of psychology at SUNY Empire and the editor of Microaggression Theory: Influence and Implications, this is one of the most common psychological effects of microaggressions that she has repeatedly found through her research. “The cumulative impact of microaggressions can be harmful in psychological ways. There've been more studies recently talking about how they can lead to depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem and attrition in the workplace. People end up leaving their jobs because they feel invalidated and not supported by the culture of the workplace. They can’t take it anymore because they’re experiencing this discrimination, but it’s not overt and is brushed over by their peers. The detrimental impact can be great.”
Is it possible to mitigate microaggressions? According to Torino, yes. “I’m a strong proponent of [unconscious bias] training and have done them myself in the past,” she says. “From an HR perspective, mandating online training on microaggressions and administering them in the workplace so people understand what they are, how they manifest, and how they can impact people from an emotional and psychological perspective is crucial. Because the nature of microaggressions can be insidious, it’s hard to see how mitigating them relates to employee safety, but it absolutely does.”
Mandating training will bring its fair share of difficulties, however, because people tend to get defensive. Torino says: “They think, ‘Oh that’s not me!’ They view it as a threat to their sense of self, and to their sense of who they are as a person. But at the end of the day we have to bring our unconscious biases into awareness and that could go a long way in terms of minimizing microaggressions. We can’t eliminate them entirely but it’s okay because we can work toward reducing their harm.”
About our source
Gina Torino is a licensed psychologist and associate professor of psychology at SUNY Empire State College. Microaggressions, white racial identity development, and cultural competency development are at the core of her research. She is the one of the editors of the book Microaggression Theory: Influence and Implications.
*Names have been abbreviated to protect the anonymity of the women in this article.