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A Take on Ageism

One benefit of spending the last 20 years in market research is being in the position to dissuade dinnertime pollsters through a cordial demurral: ‘let me stop you before you start because you’re going to terminate me anyway…my wife and I work in the market research industry.’ But the researcher in me has always wanted to participate, for the challenge of identifying the sponsor and what they’re up to this time.

As a facility owner I am frequently recruited for industry studies that track business performance and how we are thinking about (or perhaps worrying about) the future. For this I get access to the findings. One recent report focused on how corporate market researchers feel about their job and the job market in general. A sidebar highlighted the perception among some researchers that “ageism appears rampant,” as many companies are hiring younger professionals with five years of experience, versus paying the higher salaried pros who have logged 20 or more years in their craft.

There is truth in this perception. We field inquiries from all over the country and it’s always interesting to check Linked In to get some background on the person making the inquiry. I’m continually surprised to find the Research Director we’ve just communicated with is maybe two to three years out of college. Not to say they aren’t deserving, but once upon a time you’d far more likely associate a Research Director with the professor versus the recently graduated student.

My guess is that if you ask the average bear what’s the meaning of ageism, he or she would more often associate discriminatory behavior towards older people. But reality is that ageism can surface at any stage in the life of any cohort member – whether Millennials (or Gen Y), Gen Xers, Boomers, or Seniors (preferably, Mature Adults, now that I have been picked up on AARP radar).

As a society we tend to inculcate stereotypes – perhaps as much for humor value, yet invariably some of it sticks: Millennials are narcissistic, needy and uncomfortable in moving from childhood to adulthood; Gen Xers are cynical, apathetic and disengaged from societal issues; Boomers are technophobic, unwilling to embrace change and don’t care about younger generations; Seniors have no sense of adventure, lead boring lives, don’t use computers, and pinch their pennies. While thinking people know these widely held but oversimplified images of a particular generation don’t hold up under a microscope, it is nonetheless likely that traces of such prejudice can still color initial cross-generational interactions.

I remember helping a Millennial in a job search. She went on an interview for a company that helps manage the career of on-air talent – with their sweet spot being news industry personalities. She complained that she never heard back from the company after her first visit, so I asked her to replay the interview. Apparently they asked what newscasters she likes watching on TV and she said none in particular, as she gets her news from web sites. When I pointed out that her answer might have needed a bit more varnish she pushed back and said, ‘we’ll they’d be hiring me and that’s who I am!’

I also remember moderating a large ethno project in which two Gen X clients and I visited 3-4 homes per day and went shopping with each of the respondents. The clients were MBA graduates from notable business schools. Having lots of time to chat we touched on politics. I made a reference to Howard Dean and the success of the Internet-based grassroots initiatives of the Democratic party – which he was Chairman of at the time. Neither had heard of him. Nor had they heard of John Boehner. Nor did they care to learn anything about either person. We moved on to other topics for the rest of the week, needless to say.

Certainly either of these experiences could have embedded the stereotype for each generation, but such “qualitative samples” should not and cannot be projected to the larger audience (as they say). But these incidents struck me as amusing and feeding them into a casual discussion for their humor value is just how silly stereotypes end up gaining some traction.

We have a multi-generational staff here, spanning the full spectrum. Through no genius and more as a matter of practicality we have set up an informal cross-mentoring practice. For instance, the younger employees help keep the older generation in-the-know about cool stuff that is happening online, as it emerges. The older employees mentor younger ones about business etiquette and the art of developing long term client relationships. Anyone may clang the bell outside my office when something really good happens – and adult beverages before we close on Friday’s don’t hurt the blending process, either.

Formally recognizing each other’s innate strengths and natural interests through making everyone a trainer on some topic seems to work for us. (And, to be completely honest, a good amount of all this new technology stuff just makes me want to take a nap anyway!)

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