Age is Just a Number

I went into a store this weekend to exchange something I bought a couple days earlier. I had paid for one thing, but the clerk had given me the wrong item. When I explained it to a different clerk today he went back to get the right item, then stopped to explain to his manager what he was doing. The boss got a bit huffy, and came up front to apologize. “No big deal,” I said, and then he asked “was it one of the young ones?”

Now, about half the people working in the store seemed to be in their late teens, but none of them had made the mistake. I told him, “no, it was someone older.” “Oh,” he said, “it wasn’t me, was it?” “No,” I replied, “not THAT old.”

He really caught me off guard by assuming the mistake had been made by one of his younger employees, as if being younger meant you were automatically stupid. It made me think about how we often view younger workers. While age and experience may go hand in hand, simply because someone is younger and presumably less experienced does not mean they are not capable of doing their job. You need to be careful not to discriminate against your younger employees simply because of their age.

Before we go any further, let me make it clear that yes, I know there are laws about age discrimination in the workplace, and no, I am not talking about that. Far be it from me to practice law without a license (you can get in a lot of trouble for that; I am more likely to practice medicine without a license instead). Putting aside the legal issues, think about what you might miss out on if you isolate your younger employees as if they cannot contribute as much.

First, just consider how many people you are pushing to the side if you marginalize your younger workers. (how you define “younger,” of course, may depend on how old you are) The bulk of the production work in your organization is likely done by younger employees, while older employees fill management positions. If your younger employees really cannot produce, then you have got some serious problems. In the multigenerational workforce that is common today, a lot of younger people are most likely going to be working alongside older ones, and you need to be able to work together, not against each other.

Younger employees are often derided for being fresh from school, but to me, that sounds like a plus. Someone who has recently been in a learning environment has (hopefully) been exposed to new thinking that is relevant to the field, and is also more likely to be in a receptive mode when it comes to learning new things on the job. Matching up fresh ideas with experienced people sounds like a winning combination, not like babysitting.

Those fresh ideas are another reason you should welcome your younger employees. Experience is very helpful in an organization but it can also be a problem, especially if you let your successes blind you to new possibilities. People who are not carrying the experiential baggage you carry may ask the “why do we do it that way?” questions that your company needs to be able to answer. If you are looking at lack of experience as a problem, try to turn it into an opportunity instead.

When an older person hears a compliment to the effect that they are doing something great “for someone their age,” a common response is, “hey, age is just a number.” Remember, though, that the concept applies just as well at the other end of the spectrum.

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