Wednesday, July 14, 2021

"College Age Only"

While browsing Facebook the other day, I noticed a job posting on a page meant for locals. The company was looking for a few employees, but the ad specified that they were looking for "college age applicants only." It took me a couple of minutes to move past this and I've been thinking about it all week, since happening upon the posting. The job wasn't one that required only young people or that only young people could do. It was from a company that was moving into the valley, so while it might be that they are aware that we have several colleges here and hoped to appeal to students looking for work, it rubbed me the wrong way. 

I mean, it's discriminatory, right? It occurs to me that there are several things wrong here. First, you cannot legally only hire employees who are under a certain age. Second, as a person who was a non-traditional student, I consider the implication that there's such a thing as "college age" outright wrong. But, it's something I've been noticing more and more as I get older or work in industries where most of my colleagues are young people. Maybe it's something that's always been a problem, if research into age discrimination is any indication, but that I never noticed before now. I'm sure I'm just more sensitive to it as I face down my mid-40s. 

And, perhaps that's the real issue, that it's almost my 43rd birthday and I'm beginning to see how culture devalues people as they age. We're perceived as less useful, less valuable, and less capable the older we get. It's not just in business, but everywhere in American culture, and it's sad. There are cultures around the world where aging is considered a gathering of wisdom, where elders are not only appreciated, but admired. 

Sadly, as much as I don't want to think I ever participated in these stereotypes, I probably did. When I was in my mid-20s, I began playing World of Warcraft. A fairly common stereotype among video gamers is that you must be young to be good at them, or that you have to be a man. Gamers regularly make fun of older players and, if a person isn't as proficient at playing, they're automatically assumed to be either old or a woman. While I never actively promoted these ideas, I never tried to debunk them either. I was a sort of passive spectator to the intolerance that, at that point, really didn't apply to me.

This behavior, while still harmful, is fairly unserious in the context of video games. But, when you take that example and apply that same behavior to the work place, you have a real problem. The really nefarious part is that ageism isn't always as visible, or obvious, as the add in that Facebook group. It's often something that takes place in a way where it can't be pointed to as the central issue. It's obfuscated by other less serious issues that cover for it. Maybe it should be refreshing when it's out in the open and unpretentious; when it's not trying to hide.

When we first moved to the valley, I worked for a company where everyone in leadership was either an attractive, young (25 years old or under) woman, or a man. Anyone who tried to move up into leadership who didn't fit those parameters met with roadblocks. They didn't take into account education, experience with the company, or good leadership characteristics. There were leaders who had been with the company one month, while people with lots of experience and good leadership qualities were kept in lower level positions because they didn't fit the image. As a person who was already in my late 30s--and overweight--I found it impossible to move up there even though I have an advanced degree (master's level) and good leadership qualities. Needless to say, I quit that job and went looking for something where I might be valued.

A job I had after that, working for a tech company, was staffed with leaders who were all under 30. They never overtly didn't promote older people, but there were always reasons a person who was a little bit older wasn't fitting those roles. I was once told, outright, that a younger person who hadn't done my job at all was a better candidate for a promotion than I was.

My point is this: Ageism is discrimination so pervasive that there are now companies willing to openly discriminate against anyone older than college age. If it's so common they are willing to openly, and publicly, discriminate than what must be happening in companies that try to hide it? It's sad, because older people come with an experience and work ethic that should be valued, despite their age. But, that's not what's happening. Getting older is brutal enough without having to worry how you'll support yourself when all the good jobs are open to people "college age only."