‘Age Against the Machine—Ending Ageism in the Workplace’

That’s the kickass-if-I-say-so-myself title of my new talk, which debuted earlier this month, in real life, at the annual conference of the Financial Planners Association. The catalyst was my pre-event call with the organizers. 

“There’s grousing from our older members, who pretty much invented the field and feel their contributions aren’t acknowledged,” they told me. “Meanwhile the millennials think their older colleagues should get out of the way.” Sound familiar?

I’ve been on a tear for a while now about the need to wean ourselves off generational labels in general. Once I started digging into research on age bias in the workplace, I realized there was plenty more to say about why generational finger-pointing is so widespread. It’s convenient, it’s tempting, and it’s lucrative. A whole industry has sprung up, urging worried managers to consult pricey experts about how to cope with real and significant generational differences. 

In fact, most needs are universal. Work-life balance is no more important to millennials than it is to other employees. Everyone needs mental health days. Everyone appreciates flexible work schedules. Age has far less to do with affinity than we think it does. Although tensions are real, an ageist culture makes it easy to blame conflicts on age differences, instead of considering other explanations for what employees do, or don’t, have in common. 

Generational stereotypes contaminate every corner of the workplace, from decision-making to how colleagues perceive and treat each other. They obscure the rich and complex reality. They foster scapegoating—”Gen Z is so picky, what’s a manager to do?” They make people feel devalued and excluded. They undermine the solidarity and collective action necessary to implement any social good, including work-related fundamentals like affordable child care and a decent retirement. 

Discrimination in the workplace provides ideological cover for a whole set of unacceptable business practices that enable employers to take advantage of workers at both ends of the age spectrum. It’s not a too-many-old-people problem, it’s a disposable-human problem.