Ageism - less obvious though very influential

Gert-Jan van den Berg
Busy People Walking Down Stairs


When I initially think about inclusion, age is not the first thing that comes to mind. Therefore, I was surprised to find an article about ageism in my inbox written by the Atlassian Inclusion team:  "The irony of ageism: Insulting our future selves". It is a very thorough article about how age differences can be a source of prejudice or discrimination, also called ‘ageism’. I wanted to share some key points of this article, as I feel it is important for us all to be aware of them.

We all belong to an age group, and there is a tendency to attribute to each age group a specific set of characteristics and behaviours. That can be dangerous as it can lead to prejudice and discrimination of individuals solely because they fall within these brackets.

We're all ageist

Ageism is a weird concept. We're all getting older, so we’re effectively insulting our future selves when we judge older people. On the other end of the spectrum, as we grow in age and experience it can be all too easy to underestimate those in younger age groups.

Negative stereotypes perpetuate for every generation, and that’s why thinking in generations is lazy. Reinforcing negative labels hurts everyone. We all have the ability to contribute in creative and industrious ways. We don’t need to keep buying into these generational stereotypes.

Diversity is what makes a team more creative and more successful. Whether it’s by tapping into a colleague's wealth of experience, or the fresh perspectives of someone new to an area, we need talented people across a range of ages working on our teams.

Young genius, old master?

There was an interesting study of painters, attempting to determine whether one age group is better than any other. What was apparent is that some painters produce their best works early in their life (supporting the young genius idea) whereas others produce their best works late in their lives. The main difference between age groups seems to be the working methods, so although there is some connection with age it alone doesn’t paint the full picture.

The main point is that innovation is varied and complicated, and we can't easily pinpoint the best inputs. What we can tell is that diversity encourages innovation in all its forms. We should therefore place everyone on equal footing.

Looping back to technology, there is a lot of research supporting the fact that diversity on teams greatly benefits their ability to innovate. However, age does not seem to be considered an important factor. A study on US tech workers in Silicon Valley found that the companies recognise the need to improve on gender and race diversity, but age is not mentioned. Next to that 60% of the tech workers in the US say their company does not need to improve on age diversity.

Main takeaways

It might be hard to achieve, but any ageist views that influence our attitudes and decisions should be pushed out of our thinking. It does not help us in any way when we innovate. Prejudice always weakens us as a society and as a team.

If we buy into stereotypes about age (old or young), and dismiss the experience, insights, and contributions of people based on assumptions, our teams will never be as good as they can be.