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Why Workplace Ageism Is Worse for Gen Xers

Here’s how to thrive even if you feel like the office old fart

Comical drawing of close up of person's eye with wrinkles forming a thumbs down shape
Christoph Niemann

Todd never thought of himself as the old guy at the office. But who does, right? The 54-year-old Chicagoan, who works at a marketing and public relations firm, is older than his colleagues by a few decades, but he’s never noticed the age gap.

Until the quip.

During a meeting, a coworker “mentioned a client wanting a digital transformation,” he says. “And then she looked at me — she can't be more than 28 — and made an embarrassed face and said, ‘I'm sorry, you know what that means, right?’ I couldn’t f—ing believe it. What, because I'm in my ’50s, I don't understand what ‘digital’ means?”

The coworker apologized, realizing her mistake, and Todd tried to forget it. “But I was pissed,” he says.

Just like Todd, many of us are finding ourselves the “resident senior” at the office, even when we’re only in middle age. But workplace ageism in 2023 isn’t as blatant as it was during your dad’s time. Todd calls it “just a feeling. It’s this unspoken weirdness between me and my younger coworkers.” 

It doesn’t help matters that Gen Xers often get caught right between the boomers, who are increasingly reluctant to retire, and the millennials and Gen Zers who think it’s their time to lead. Once again, Gen X is the forgotten middle child, despite being able to straddle the line between generations. “Digitally adaptive,” but not “digitally native” like younger peers, which can put them at an uncomfortable remove in increasingly virtual work settings.

Especially in tech fields, there’s “latent discrimination,” says Jessica Kriegel, the chief scientist of workplace culture at Culture Partners. It’s an unspoken feeling that “older people won’t understand the new ways of work.” So even if you’re unfazed by ChatGPT or other artificial intelligence systems, your younger colleagues might still look at you through ageist glasses, like you’re an old man trying to set the clock on his VCR.

The latent discrimination becomes even more apparent when you’re looking for work. There’s a basic incentive that drives recruiters toward younger talent, and it’s not just about your ability to grasp new technology. The older you are, the more expensive you generally are.

“Many companies would rather hire someone young, which means cheaper,” says Kriegel. “If they get good at the role and want more money, they can go find that money elsewhere.”

But there’s reason to be optimistic. Age discrimination is still rampant, but much of it is fueled by our own insecurities. Most firms, at least outside of Big Tech, “need good people, and they’ll put aside biases to find them,” Kriegel continues. “They’re willing to look past ageism to keep hitting their targets.”

Does it sting when a 20-something colleague makes an offhand comment about your salt-and-pepper scruff or asks if you still use a fax machine? Hell yes it does. But does it mean that your value in the company is diminishing and you’re probably being pushed toward the door? Unlikely. There are policies to protect aging workers against exactly that. Legal protections against ageism have never been stronger. Microsoft, Marriott and Macy’s are among the thousands of employers nationwide that have signed the AARP Employer Pledge to promote equal opportunity for all workers, regardless of age. 

What the Gen X worker has to contend with isn’t career irrelevance, but bruised egos.

Todd learned to accept his status as the odd one out in his much-younger office. After that tense exchange over his understanding of “digital transformation,” he says that his coworkers have stopped condescending to him.

“They might still be thinking it,” Todd says with a smirk. “But I have to let that go. Show a little respect to my face in the office, and giggle all you want behind my back. There are things I can control and things I just have to grow a thicker skin about.”

Besides, he adds, “I still make more than any of them. I’m the old guy at the office, but I’m the old guy whose mortgage is almost paid off.”

Follow Article Topics: Money-&-Career