“You’re Young”: My Experience with Ageism in the Workplace

A lot of conversation regrading ageism in the workplace focuses on hiring practices and the experiences of older adults. And I’m sure there are legitimate elements to that.

But.

What about the experiences of young people in the workplace whose knowledge is dismissed out of hand? What about getting hired for a job you know you are 100% qualified to do and having people challenge your every comment and decision even though they work in a totally different department?

That’s what I’m talking about today.

Because I regularly get dismissed out of hand for being – and looking – very young.

Patrons flat out ask me my age. Not my work experience, or my educational background. As if a number can convey all my life’s experiences. And as if it is any of their freaking business.

But while I get skeptical looks from parents who drop their kids off, they are quickly won over through a conversation or two and their teen talking about what they did in YOUmedia that day. But with co-workers, it is not so simple.

The other day I was having a conversation with a co-worker. This person was giving me completely unsolicited advice about my job. Telling me all about how I should interact with the teens in my space, what kinds of programs I should run, how not to make the adult patrons in the library mad.

I was irritated about this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that this person has never for a day in their life worked with teens professionally, but then they said these words and I almost lost it:

“Since you’re young and starting out.”

Let’s be clear about two things:

  1. I am neither particularly young nor am I even remotely “starting out”
  2. I am really damn good at my job

I am really good at my job. Yet, I am constantly pressured to prove myself to those I work with.

These people see only my short height, my freckled baby face, and my converse shoes. They see only someone significantly younger than them and so assume I must be incapable.

Never mind that I went through a rigorous interview process to prove I was capable before getting this job.

Never mind that I taught in the ghettos of DC which were significantly rougher circumstances than this.

Never mind that I know more about computers and technology than all of these people combined.

No, I am younger than them and therefore can’t possibly know what I’m doing.

I’ve been working professionally with teens for over 10 years. In that time I’ve headed departments, taken leadership over projects, sat on committees and ran my own damn business for a while. So when I talk about collaborating on a presentation for a conference and you chuckle as if I’m a 5 year old who just said they’re going to the moon, it’s going to piss me off.

I regularly sit in department head meetings, or in conversation with co-workers at the reference desk and far too many of them feel entitled to inform me how I should run my department. They don’t think the teen books should be moved, they don’t think the space should be locked, they don’t think we should ever use expensive equipment because it will definitely get stolen.

And I just wonder – what is it about me that gives you the impression I am not 100% in control of this?

Don’t be fooled by the purple hair, I have answers to all these questions.* In fact, I’m happy to share my wealth of information on the topic of teen emotional and social development, and best practices in teen services. I am. I could talk about this shit for hours.

But these people don’t want to hear my answers. They’ve already dismissed what I have to say. And that’s rude enough, but what drives me crazy is the underlying assumption that I haven’t thought of each and every one of these situations and scenarios. What makes me livid is when I flippantly say – in an attempt to deflect an interrogation about my conflict resolution skills –  “I can handle rowdy teens, I just pull out my stern teacher face and angry teacher voice” and their response is to demand, “Oh, show me. Show me your teacher face.”

Bitch I ain’t no performing monkey!

And I could tell the stories. How I once had a student throw a chair at my head. How I’ve had students go to juvie and get killed in gang fights. How I lost students because they had to flee mom’s ex-boyfriend, and worse. I could recite my graduate thesis project about services for LGBTQ Teens in the Library and give you an hour long speech pimping #WeNeedDiverseBooks. I could paraphrase the research and articles from all the professional magazines I read. I could detail my qualifications to these skeptics in the same condescending voice they use when talking to me.

I could. But I don’t. Because I strive to be an example of actual professionalism. Or at least not be a giant asshole.

And also because it probably wouldn’t make a difference.

And my frustration with the way I am so often treated – dismissed, overlooked, patronized because I just look young, only fuels my determination to be an advocate for teens. Because teens have to deal with that kind of bullshit All. The. Damn. Time.

Teens are heaped with responsibility and yet still have almost no control over their lives. They are expected to behave as adults but given almost none of the privileges. Adults around them demand respect automatically, while not being any more respectful to a teen than to a pet.

I work well with teens because I like them. And teens like me because I treat them like people. It makes me so sad to see how these so often surprises them. Many teens, especially the at-risk teens I work with, have never encountered this before. And I regularly learn things from them! I learn about new technology, I learn new perspectives. Teens haven’t quite been beaten into submission and a cynical state about the world yet. It’s wonderful.

So even if I was young and even if I was just starting out, it’s not acceptable to be speaking to me that way. It’s not acceptable to be assuming that I’m incapable. It’s not acceptable to treat me as if I don’t know what I’m doing.

Have you experienced this sort of behavior? Share your stories in the comments.

*The teen books go in the teen space because duh. And because research. Which I’ve read and can summarize for you with quotes and statistics. The teen space is locked because it’s for the teens and no adults can’t be in there even when there aren’t any teens in. Because it’s not for adults. And since we cater to adults the other 99.9% of the time, I am here to stand up for the teens and demand that just this once we do what is in their best interest. And the adults can get the fuck over it. We are going to use the fancy expensive equipment we are lucky enough to have and I am going to both supervise and also trust the teens enough to understand that it’s a privilege that will be revoked if they steal our stuff. Teens understand this and are generally trustworthy, I promise.

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5 thoughts on ““You’re Young”: My Experience with Ageism in the Workplace

  1. I feel your pain. At my previous job I was the youngest person in the office by about 12 years, and my boss constantly made snide remarks about how I’m “such a millennial”—as if that was a bad thing for some reason. I never quite understood what her issue was with me; she even said to me once that I shouldn’t “get upset” if she told me something that I thought was obvious because “I don’t know what you know and what you don’t.” This because I forgot (once!) to bring brochures to a meeting. She went on to say, “I know some of these things probably seem obvious, but I would have thought it would be obvious to bring brochures to that meeting.” She was basically asking for free license to treat me like I was an idiot and/or a child. All because I made a single mistake—and because I’m a “millennial.”

    Thanks for doing what you do for teens. It’s so great that teen spaces are growing in libraries across the country so they have a place to go where adults like you will treat them like equals. 🙂

  2. You sound like an amazing teen librarian! Adults often look down on teens, and then they wonder why teens don’t trust them.

    I’ve worked at a place where I was looked down upon because I was out of college. My boss would lecture me and then when I did well on something, my boss would take credit like she was some great mentor. In reality, she belittled me and disrespected me often.

    My next job, though, was much better. Even though everyone was older than me, they treated me as a useful member of the team because I offered a different perspective. I noticed I was much more loyal to that department and I took pride in my work. Overall, I just did better because I knew they weren’t looking down on me.

    It’s more difficult to do your job and grow as a person (and employee) when you have to deal with the crap from coworkers. I hope things get straightened out soon.

  3. I am dealing with this right now. I’m 25 and I moved up fast in my organization, but my boss treats me like an imbecile. On multiple occasions pointing out how I’m “young and have no credibility” with other business areas (I train employees and document new processes), or that I need to “speak at a lower register” so that I sound more knowledgeable and that I should not dress so “young”. I’m not dressed like a hooker, not short skirts, no skin tight clothing. It’s gotten to the point that I wonder why I was even hired into the position. I know now that when asked my opinion if I don’t rattle of something that agrees with what my boss is saying then it gets dismissed because you know. I’m young and don’t know any better and oh the millennial comments. They are a riot. The rest of my team is starting to notice how differently I get treated. It’s sad really. My boss actually thinks that I wouldn’t have an ageism case against them because I’m not a “protected age group”.

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