A friend of mine from high school posted a recent NY Times article about the realities of ageism in today’s employment landscape. More than the article itself, there were nigh on 1700 comments (when I started reading the article, it may have jumped up since then.) There were a lot of replies to my HS buddy’s original post as well. Concurrently with this discussion, an acquaintance of mine lamented the fact that his lack of a degree is shutting him out of potential jobs; the sorts of freelance career options he has been pursuing are usually going to MA and even (most recently a) PhD candidates. I also see a lot of data and reporting on the very unemployed youth (18-25) in today’s market.
I am the same age as the person that originally brought the NYT article to my attention. I am a few years younger than the freelancer without the degree. I am also a middle-aged recruiter in the very youth-centric tech industry. I have had a robust career for over fifteen years in my chosen profession and preferred industry. I am quite literally at the top of my career, with a professional brand and name recognition among my peers. Of the candidates I have hired in the last six months, at least 20% of them are over 40. One thing that an older employee/candidate has is: an established professional network and (hopefully) the skills to use it. As a recruiter, networking is still the primary way to find a new opportunity.
I am not going to deny that ageism exists both for older and younger workers, because that would be a lie. I will admit that from an employer perspective, there is definitely a monetary element to the practice…older candidates are perceived to be more expensive from a compensation perspective than their younger peers.
But there is a flip side to this conversation, and it is the other “A” traits I see:
“Attitude” and “Adaptability”
If you read any of the comments pertaining to age-related content, you will see very distinct responses from the sample population (let’s go with “over 45” at this juncture). The first type is “woe is me” and “the good old days” and “when I was young…” Conversely, there is a smaller subset that identifies as getting along with a younger workforce as SME’s and mentors; has reinvented their careers, up to and including starting their own businesses; sees the changing landscape as part and parcel of life, exciting and challenging.
This leads me to my second “A” – adaptability
One of the very biggest beliefs and complaints about older workers is their inability or refusal to adapt to change: new technology, updated tools, different methodology, workplace trends, etc. I have countless personal anecdotes of my chronologic peers who adamantly refuse to change their perceptions and work styles. It is this lack of adaptability that is more of a detriment to *any* candidate than their actual age.
As a recruiter I get a constant stream of requests for help with resumes, job/candidate leads, subject matter expertise, job hunting strategies, and marketing/branding ideas. There has been a significant uptick in the number of older workers looking to either stay employed, eke out a few more years of corporate work, or even find something new as an employee. Here is the thing: I am happy to help or make suggestions, send resources your way, answer recruiting/job search questions, even leverage my network on your behalf if I know you. But if you keep saying the same things over and over (“attitude”) then you’ll lose my interest and willingness to support your efforts. As a veteran recruiter, believe me when I say I have seen and heard just about everything. Those of us in a position to help are generally happy to…but we help those that help themselves. Referrals from people that we help are the bread and butter for us when we try to fill difficult roles. So it is in our own professional best interests to pay it forward.
I’m going to flip this conversation to the reverse form of ageism…not hiring entry-level, or very young, candidates. The general profile of a candidate in my current recruiting queue has 2-6 years of *industry* experience and a degree (BS/MS). Today’s younger candidates generally have little problem with “adaptability” in terms of learning new skills (especially in technology). However, our culture has raised a large generation of young adults that lack critical thinking skills. It is a result of over-parenting (aka “helicopter”) and an educational system that teaches students all the skills necessary to work in a group of people, but not how to problem solve individually and rewards “showing up” as much as excelling, and learning to take tests rather than solve problems and communicate well. (Don’t believe me? There is a school system nearby that has weighted 40% of a student’s grade is *attendance*. If you just show up and do minimal work you can slide by). Human beings learn and grow from our *failures*. I don’t believe that the majority of young adults are given the tools needed for coping with the modern corporate culture. I understand a lot of their frustration with it, and why there are so many young entrepreneurs. And this is changing, but it is a slow metamorphosis.
I see the same attitudes from younger workers that I see from their older counterparts: an expectation that the workplace should adapt to *their* perceived wants and needs, and a refusal or inability to actually try and understand why the status quo (whatever it may be) exists. Instead of looking at an opportunity to learn and possibly affect change from within, I see and hear complaints about stagnation, lack of opportunity/speed of recognition, failure to provide for them, and an often infantile need for constant attention and hand-holding. When you go to work, you are being paid to do a job. You should be given reasonable tools and training to achieve that, but it is *your* responsibility to actually learn, ask questions, synthesize information and get started on actually working. In the professional world, no news is good news. Meaning if your manager/lead doesn’t tell you something needs improvement, you are doing well. It is more than reasonable to expect regular 1:1 meetings to go over your career trajectory, your performance, and to answer questions. You should be given the resources (people and tools) to actually do your job. It is NOT okay to demand constant reassurance from someone that has many other competing priorities. It is definitely not permissible to expect other people to spoon feed you information that you should be able to find once you have access to it.
So whether you are a baby-boomer still kicking around in the workforce, a GenX’er trying to figure out being “Jan” in your office, or a Digital Native/Millennial just starting out on your professional path, there are alpha traits that can make your career and life much more rewarding and fulfilling.
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