Between workplace ageism and an ongoing shortage of well-paid jobs, it’s every generation for itself
One of the unexpected outcomes of a recent article I wrote about ageism in the workplace was an outpouring of stories from older workers claiming to have been discriminated against for their age. Another was a whole lot of Gen X vs. millennial hatred in the comments.
A lot of the tired stereotypes older people hold about millennials — we’re lazy, entitled, self-absorbed, etc. — are in part rooted in, or at that very least reinforced by, age discrimination. Age discrimination has left many Gen Xers with dwindling job prospects in what they believed would be the most prosperous period in their careers, and they resent the younger generation for it.
“I am so tired of these millennials getting it all,” writes Stefania Corti, a Los Angeles–based fashion designer. “What about us Gen Xers? We were the ones to really work in life to get what we wanted. No trophies for all, no certificates of participation, no soft parenting. These spoiled Instagramming, Snapchatting, Facebooking, IM-ing younger people are taking over the world, while Baby Boomers are getting ready for their retirement, and us Gen-Xers are in the shadow, confused at what the heck happened to what was supposed to be the best years of our life.”
Corti’s comment received 32 likes, and the response just below hers reads: “You said it sister!” Apparently the best way to respond to an article about age discrimination is to denigrate an entire generation based on their age.
But Corti’s frustration is misplaced. Millennials, who entered the workforce after Gen X, didn’t make the hiring decisions that negatively affected Corti and those in her age group. (Such as the economic circumstances that made less experienced but consequently cheaper workers seem more appealing.)
Other Gen-Xers resent millennials’ willingness to work longer hours for less money and thus depressing wages in the workforce.
But millennials may be the most economically challenged generation in American history. Unemployment rates for young workers hovered near 20 percent in the wake of the Great Recession, the highest such rate since the Department of Labor began tracking the number after World War II. Wages for 20-something college grads declined over this same period, while student loan debt topped $1 trillion. If millennials took low-paying jobs, it was out of necessity.
“Too often generations appear to blame one another for their respective plights,” says Mike North, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Older workers blame younger generations for being able to work longer hours, at a fraction of the cost, and without so many family obligations. Meanwhile, younger generations blame older workers for delaying retirement, remaining in the workforce longer than ever, and clogging up the jobs pipeline for younger generations to get their turn.”
But the disillusionment some Gen-Xers feel is justified, according to Cam Marston, owner of Generational Insights, a consultancy that advises companies on generational issues in the workplace. Gen Xers feel “squeezed” by the generations on either side of them, Marston says. “They’re in their primary earning years and can’t get the Boomer generation out of the way so that the Xers can assume roles of leadership which will allow them to earn more.” Indeed, Americans are working later in life than ever before.
And then there the are the kids coming up from behind. “Gen Xers see that their future will be dominated by this next generation who, per Gen X, have had it too easy. … Yes, the economy stunk from 2008 to 2010, but millennials moved back home or continued going to school. Few of them… delivered pizzas to make ends meet during those tough times. [Gen X] thinks they got off easy.”
Unfortunately, the intergenerational tension (and age discrimination) is likely only to get worse as people work later and later in life and the range of ages in the office only gets wider.
“Generational tensions clearly foster more discrimination, and vice versa,” North adds. “The main difference the perception of generational tension appears to be greater than at any point in recent memory. Age discrimination charges have steadily risen as older adults remain in the workforce longer than ever. On the younger side, unemployment rates are uncomfortably high. It’s created a unique climate of age discrimination and generational tension that clearly needs to be resolved.”