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How to Overcome the Young Person Stigma at Work

Updated: May 2, 2019

student on computer

“You’re young enough to be my kid!” Comments like this in the workplace might feel harmless to the person saying them, but they can be a symptom of a much larger problem.

If you’re under 30 or so, you’ve probably had an experience where you were treated unfairly based on your age. Although the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits the exclusion of applicants or employees from positions on the sole basis of their age, it only protects employees

40 years and older.

So, what can you do about age discrimination against younger workers? Discover how to minimize its effects – and even turn it into a positive motivator for your career.

Stereotypes of Young Workers

When you’re competent and committed, it can be incredibly frustrating to know your older coworkers would rather believe the negative stereotypes about Millennials and Generation Z. It helps to know what they might be thinking, so you can be strategic about how you respond to and counter their assumptions. Some of the misconceptions are:

• You’re entitled. You’re not willing to pay your dues.

• You need constant attention and praise.

• You don’t have any social skills because of your dependence on technology.

• You won’t stick around because young people are “job hoppers.”

• You expect all the perks of an executive, even though you’re entry level.

What Are the Effects of Age Discrimination Against Younger Workers?

Being ignored, embarrassed, or diminished by a colleague can make work miserable and defeating.

If the person doing it has respect within the company, it can also affect your reputation.

Individuals who believe the stereotypes about young workers probably also feel that you must “put in” a certain amount of years before you could possibly have the knowledge or skill to move into a leadership position. This makes it doubly hard for ambitious young professionals to take on leadership roles. Older colleagues may be passive-aggressive and seek ways to undermine

their authority.

When the discrimination comes from your boss, senior level executives, or human resources,

it can lead to even more serious consequences. You might be passed over for a promotion to someone older but less qualified. Perhaps you’re being paid less for the same job even when your qualifications meet or surpass older colleagues.

How to Minimize the Effects of Reverse Age Discrimination

Even though it’s not fair that you need to change because of someone else’s false impressions, there are ways you can minimize the effects. On the positive side, all these recommendations will position you to grow within your organization. You don’t always need the title to be a leader. In fact, that’s the best way to show you’re up to the task.

Talk About Your Professional Aspirations

Be vocal about your career goals and vision. Share the steps you’re taking to learn, grow and

succeed in the workplace. Then, put it into action. Make sure your coworkers see your ambition

and hard work.

When you know your stuff, people respect you. Find opportunities to continue your education.

  • Join a professional or industry association

  • Obtain a certification in your field

  • Complete online training

  • Attend conferences

Then, incorporate your new knowledge into your daily work.

Be Innovative

This relates to the point above. Look for opportunities to solve old problems in new ways. Even if it’s not immediately valued, young professionals see things differently than our older counterparts. Show them how important this is. This might involve taking on a special project or simply offering to test out a theory. Even if they scoff, you can prove them wrong.

Don’t Get Mired in Office Politics

Nothing will undermine your efforts more than being a source of office gossip or negative talk. Handling these situations in a professional manner will add to your perception as a mature

member of the team.

Keep Your Social Media Private

An unprofessional social media post can undermine your credibility unwittingly. Even if you share things that you find perfectly okay, older colleagues might form their own judgments. Avoid the problem by keeping everything private.

Dress Professionally

Even though many workplaces are casual nowadays, choose your wardrobe carefully, especially if you’re leading a meeting or have an important appointment. You may not feel it matters, but it may shift others’ perceptions of you.

How to Respond to Inappropriate Comments

According to an article by Harvard Business Review on handling offensive comments at work, you should first weigh the consequences of both speaking up and remaining silent. If you let it go,

it could give the person implicit permission to continue. However, if the person is in a position of authority, your job security could be at risk.

If you choose to do so, here are some tips for addressing the comment:

  • Start with the assumption that the person did not mean to offend you. When it comes to age discrimination of younger workers, this is often the case. Their comment could have been meant as a compliment or a joke.

  • Understand that the person might be intimidated by your abilities and feeling insecure. If you think this might be the case, be gentle in your approach.

  • Explain (privately) why the comment made you uncomfortable. You can share that it adds to the perception of you as immature or unprofessional, which is obviously the opposite of what you want to portray.

  • Even if it made you angry, don’t begin with an accusatory tone. As noted above, they may not even realize it was offensive or problematic.

  • Ask questions to clarify what they meant. If they said something like, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand, you’re too young.” You might follow up with “What did you mean by that?” or “What information are you basing that on?”

If the person has not changed his/her behavior after you’ve spoken, or you’re not comfortable addressing them directly, you may want to elevate your concern to someone in authority to get advice.

If the Human Resources department is committed to supporting their younger workers, they’ll find a way to help you address the problem.

When It’s Time to Go

Certain work environments are more prone to age discrimination against younger workers.

There might be very few people your age or leadership has created a culture that doesn’t value younger professionals.

Since you don’t have legal protections (yet) against discrimination, you’ll need to decide when it’s time to move on. Think about these factors before you do:

  • Will this position give you experience, knowledge or skills that are worth the frustration of age discrimination for the short-term?

  • Is there one person who makes comments? Is that person close to retirement?

  • Are there ways you can interact less with this person?

  • Do you think their comments are affecting your reputation in the workplace, or is it more a matter of pride?

  • Is there someone in the organization who could help you manage the effects of age discrimination? Or mentor you through it?

  • Does the organization as a whole support younger workers? If not, are they likely to change?


Reverse ageism is an unfortunate reality in the workforce. It will probably always be present to some degree. The key is to rise above the stereotypes and create a professional image that best represents who you truly are – an aspiring leader.

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