The way to overcome ageism is first to accept it, even the absurdity of it. For instance:
“Young people are just smarter.” – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Did we suddenly wake up one morning and the human condition had suddenly reversed itself? A reversal of the truth throughout human history that, generally speaking, the older people became the smarter (more experienced) they got?
Or is this statement pure prejudice, hubris, and ageism?
When baby boomers were twenty-somethings (and pretty much throughout history) it was older people who were prejudiced against youth (they lacked wisdom, experience and needed to work their way up). Obviously, somewhere in the intervening years, the two prejudices passed in the middle of the night and we as a generation got screwed receiving the negative prejudice at both ends of our life.
It is ironic because it is the boomer generation that paved the way for twenty-somethings to realize the success and veneration they have today (no good deed goes unpunished).
If you look at Zuckerberg’s statement in the context of Facebook, new technology and the like, he has an essential point. There’s no doubt that twenty-somethings are more wired for these types of applications and have by virtue of their youth and optimism (and lack of life experience) the energy or higher tolerance to go through learning curves (just as we did in our twenties) and with the belief that “it will be different for me.”
Ageism absurdity run amuck
“People over forty-five basically die in terms of new ideas”.
-Vinod Khosla, Venture Capitalist
“(Twenty-somethings) have great passion. They don’t have distractions like families and children and other things that get in the way.”
-Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital
Overarching statements such as these imbue upon the national psyche that these are fundamental truths, which of course they are not. Overarching statements about people over 50 “being done” are no more true that perceptions 50 years ago by older Americans that people in their 20’s were incapable of creating and running a business or that millennials today are largely lazy or self-entitled.
These statements are also projected through a very narrow lens focused singularly on digital technology. Even if this is absolutely true in that sector, there remains a multitude of other sectors.
The inspiration for this blog post came from an article in the New Republic,
The Brutal Ageism of Tech, which brings to light how men in their late thirties in Silicon Valley are getting cosmetic surgery in order to look young enough to be relevant or even scoping out parking lots of prospective employers to see how employees dress so they can fit in.
The darkness of this irony is not hard to see. In the one corner of the American economy defined by its relentless optimism, where the spirit of invention and reinvention reigns supreme, we now have a large and growing class of highly trained, objectively talented, surpassingly ambitious workers who are shunted to the margins, doomed to haunt corporate parking lots and medical waiting rooms, for reasons no one can rationally explain. The consequences are downright depressing.
-Noam Schieber, The New Republic
Silicon Valley may be an extreme case. Most likely it is the canary in the coal mine.
Either way, these ageist perceptions are destructive and in many cases totally incorrect. If someone over 50 has a great idea, can be indispensable to a team, or offer wisdom, experience and mentoring, why diminish or dismiss that?
Consider the truth
Consider that throughout human history most of the great art, science, architecture, inventing, writing and other hallmark achievements came from people in their olderhood.
This is not, should not and cannot be an either/or, us vs. them proposition.
Why make the distinction at all. Just like race, religion, and gender, we must be inclusive of the diversity our backgrounds and experience provide. This is critical to success and it is critical to our economic and societal growth.
Consider if you will the twenty-something that has a great idea and excellent technical skill but lacks the experience or business acumen to realize it and make it a success.
Or better yet, realize that not every job or endeavor requires the tech-savvy attributes the people behind these quotes are referring to.
For employers, diversity and inclusion is the hot new initiative and it goes far beyond race and gender quotas. The fundamental success point is to be inclusive of a wide variety of employees from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives who can provide solutions, insights, support, and success.
People in olderhood have the hard-earned experience to offer as well as the talent and creative thinking which they had in their youth and these assets do not just disappear.
On the flip side it is up to older employees to also be inclusive and not dismiss youthful enthusiasms, unique ideas or even naïveté (how many great things have come from “I didn’t know any better.”).
An engineer in his forties recently told me about meeting a tech CEO who was trying to acquire his company. “You must be the token graybeard,” said the CEO, who was in his late twenties or early thirties. “I looked at him and said, ‘No, I’m the token grown-up.’ ”
Ageism (both toward the young as well as the old) makes me want to stomp my feet and scream at the ageist.
Consider this quote from a Santa Clara based I.T. company as noted in the New Republic article:
“We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.”
Ask yourself: Is my best work behind me or ahead of me?
Or does it even have to be my “best” work? Can it also be great, worthwhile and successful work? In other words, more of my best work.
The answer and the results are yours. Not Mr. Zuckerberg’s.
Ways to Overcome Ageism
While shining a light on the absurdity of ageism has its purpose, getting upset at the wrongness of it does no good. Moral indignation is not a strategy or tactic that achieves anything.
The ways I’ve learned to overcome ageism is for me and us to show the opposite of ageist assumptions in the way we work, act and align.
As individuals, we are perceived as an outlier, the exception to the rule even though we are more representative than not. The way we are is counter to ageist presumptions. We are up-to-date, open and inclusive to other age groups and take the high road by making the team, relationship or enterprise as respective and inclusive as possible.
I have come to learn that it isn’t always ageism that gets in people’s way. Sometimes it’s the older person themselves who is out-of-date and out-of-touch.
By being an outlier we will change the perception. As individuals, being an outlier will lead them to ultimate success. These are the ways to overcome ageism.