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Ageism Sets up a Future the Ageist People Won’t Want

6 minute read
Debbie Levitt avatar
Beware of setting up a future where your career stalls because workplaces value youth and inexperience over what you've built over many years.

If you spend any time on LinkedIn you’ll likely see at least one post from a young person looking for a junior or entry-level job. In an attempt to sell themselves, their post will suggest that companies shouldn’t hire for talent or experience, but instead should hire for ambition, spirit, capacity to learn, etc. because “that’s what will get the job done.” These posts often highlight being “hungry” to learn new things and the ability to learn quickly, implying that those with experience are somehow uninterested or less able to learn new things quickly.

What's So Bad About Experience?

Even Forbes jumps into the fray with articles like, “Why Hiring for Experience Often Isn’t the Right Choice.” This article is one man’s experience a few years ago when he found that “experienced hires underperformed” while “junior team members typically stepped in to fill managerial roles with more success.” He claims the “experienced” hires at his company started out strong but then leveled off or fell behind, or they got off to a poor start because they didn't have the right team in place, which would require them to "do the work and get their hands dirty," something they hadn't had to do in some time.

Hold on. This argument is already coming apart at the seams. He hired experienced managers, but they didn’t know how to build a team because they hadn’t done it in a while? His experienced hires started out strong but rapidly faded into poor work output? How many people at this company matched these descriptions? Two? 50? The article isn’t clear about the author’s sample size. 

Could it be he hired the wrong people for his company and needs? It’s not a foregone conclusion that the problem was their experience. If you need an experienced manager who has built a team within the last X years, you wouldn’t hire someone who didn’t match that and then complain later that your new worker hadn’t built teams recently.

The author continues by declaring that if a less experienced staff member can be trained for this position within 18 months, that is the better choice than hiring the person with experience, who would have hit the ground running. While there is nothing wrong with creating a work environment where we hire juniors and offer them the potential for promotion within their first two years, three questions come to mind.

  • If juniors get 18 months of training, why wouldn’t we offer experienced people some training so they can be better performers? The article sounds like experienced workers were given up on fairly quickly.
  • If our workplace believes that hiring for experience is generally a bad practice, who is training and teaching these juniors? We have all struggled to learn something because we had a bad teacher or no teacher. We would expect to be trained by someone with extensive experience, contrasted with someone who just learned this themselves in the last year and has had minimal time to put the lessons into real-life use. “Our recently-trained, slightly-experienced managers lead our inexperienced juniors” isn't a compelling slogan.
  • How often are people truly ready to be managers after 18 months of learning on the job? Would we hire a junior programmer, foster their leadership skills, and promote them to a dev manager position within 18 months? What are the organizational benefits in promoting someone straight from junior to manager vs. juniors working their way up to senior and then to lead or manager, which normally happens over five to 10 years?

Related Article: IT Needs to Face Its Isms

Beware the Ageist Future You're Creating

While social posts and articles denouncing experience aren’t the root causes of ageism, they are a piece of the puzzle, and one we are in control of. It’s hard to find a magic bullet that will dispel the fears and prejudices people project against those they perceive as old, but we can avoid adding fuel to the fire with careless or misguided statements.

It seems perfectly harmless for someone in their 20s to post to LinkedIn announcing experience isn't an important factor in hiring (or is a negative factor), and that energy, drive, hunger and the capacity to learn are what employers should focus on. What will that person say or post in 15 or 20 years when they are having trouble getting a job due to ageism? If you've been working in the same industry for 10 or more years, chances are your calling card is your experience, expertise and the ability to hit the ground running.

Learning Opportunities

If you hired an experienced worker who didn’t hit the ground running — or is unable to keep running — the problem is the individual you chose, not that experienced people aren’t still ambitious, creative or always learning. This is the cognitive bias of “illusory correlation,” when we imagine a cause and effect relationship where one doesn’t exist. Don't assume that experience means people have lower capacities for learning, growth, creativity, innovation or results.

The Forbes article closes with, “Experience isn't a bad thing, but it can be expensive and, surprisingly, lead to complacent hires when it’s not combined with aptitude and the ability to grow.” This attitude is ageism in disguise, but at least he’s being honest. Experience will cost you money and the author appears to have decided it’s not worth it. Solution: Hire for experience, aptitude and the ability to grow. Those people will demand higher salaries than newbies, but it’s worth the investment. 

We are already seeing ageism affecting veteran customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX) experts’ abilities to find jobs. These talented people would make great hires. And with their struggles to find a job, they are certainly hungrier than ever. They would know how to adapt to various workplaces, and they can be the appreciated mentors and trainers your juniors need and want.

Beware of setting up a future where your career stalls because workplaces value youth and inexperience over what you built over many years. Adjust your social posts, articles, statements and presentations to match the future career you want to create for yourself and others.

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About the author

Debbie Levitt

Debbie Levitt, CEO of Delta CX, has been a CX and UX strategist, designer, and trainer since the 1990s. As a “serial contractor” who lived in the Bay Area for most of the 2010's, Debbie has influenced interfaces at Sony, Wells Fargo, Constant Contact, Macys.com, Oracle, and a variety of Silicon Valley startups. Her new book, "Delta CX," burns down what's hurting the UX industry and builds up what we must do instead to prioritize quality in every area.