How to Handle Reverse Ageism

Being called a "kid" in the workplace can be insulting and defeating. Here's why reverse ageism is a bad idea.

Richie Frieman,
June 25, 2014

When I first started working after graduating from college, I joined a large office and was the youngest person on a 60-person team. I got along with everyone and they seemed to enjoy working with me. However, there was one coworker who often said things like, “Don’t forget, I got kids your age,” or  “Come over here, kiddo,” or even worse, “But he’s just a youngin.”

Yes, I live in Maryland where there's a big southern presence here, but youngin’? That’s like out of a bad 1960s western. Not something you'd expect to hear at work. And what's worse, this colleague enjoyed saying it as loud and as publicly as possible. Almost like she was a big sister (that I never had or wanted) and I was the annoying little brother she enjoyed picking on. My coworker thought she was being funny, but in fact, she was being incredibly insensitive, completely unprofessional, and displaying what I call reverse ageism.

Ageism is usually defined as stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. In most cases it means you think or judge someone as being “too old” to perform a job at the rate you prefer.  However, when I brought this annoying coworker up to my boss, I found out that ageism does not apply to younger people.

What?... Why not?

Here I had a senior employee mocking me solely because I was young and I had to take it? So if she said to me (in front of others), “I have kids your age, bud!” that’s OK, but if I were to reply with, “Well, I have parents your age!” I would be reprimanded.  How backwards is that? After all, if she could be funny, why couldn’t I? In reality, ageism on any level is highly unmannerly.

Regardless of how you use ageism – towards older or younger people – it shows a lack of respect. It also shows a lack of self-confidence in your work. In my case, this coworker only said these things when I spoke up about an issue she disagreed with or, when she was trying to dominate a meeting.  It was the only thing she could think of that she knew could squash my argument, since it would get a laugh from others.

So if she said to me, “I have kids your age, bud!” that’s OK, but if I were to reply with, “Well, I have parents your age!” I would be reprimanded.  How backwards is that?

Yes, I was younger but I also had great ideas and was much more knowledgeable about technology than she was - and it bothered her. This was her defense mechanism and showed great weakness on her part.

Here’s the deal: Whether it’s age, race, gender, ethnicity, or even fashion sense, everyone should get a fair shake. I don’t care how old a person is, if they are a good worker, I want them on my team! If there is a wiz kid intern at 17, who happens to know more about the industry trends happening right now than my 2o-year veteran colleague, then that's the guy I'm working with today.

Is maturity an issue? Of course! But that’s another topic of discussion. 

In reality, judging people on what you perceive their abilities to be, before they're even showcased, makes you look completely narrow-minded.  If you are working with a younger person and their maturity is an issue, then by all means address that. But if you can’t work with someone because you think they are too young to be in your presence, then you should remember what is was like when you first started out and had a drive to succeed.

So stop the bullying and grow up! 

As always, if you have a manners question, I look forward to hearing from you at manners@quickanddirtytips.com. Follow me on Twitter @MannersQDT, and of course, check back next week for more Modern Manners Guy tips for a more polite life.

Do you have any recent graduates in your circle, or perhaps someone who is looking to start a new career, check out my new book, Reply All…And Other Ways to Tank Your Career for great tips and advice on job success. It's available now!

Young woman image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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