Emily, an upbeat 33-year-old executive coach, started using phrases like “whippersnapper” and “dilly of a pickle” after she was called “young lady” one too many times at work. Her sunny disposition belies insecurity: Emily typically deals with clients who are decades older than her, and she wants to fit in. “I think the subconscious message is that they’ve done this for longer and therefore know more,” she says.
Now when Emily speaks to clients, she’s careful to distance herself from her millennial cohort. “I make sure they consider me Gen X,” she says. “It gives me a few years.”
In May, Emily went a step further in her bid for respect. “There was nothing more I could do with my clothes. I already dress very professionally in suits and heels.” So she cut her long straight hair into a sleek Claire Underwood pixie undercut—and got exactly the reaction she wanted. “Colleagues have said, ‘Oh, this is executive Emily,’” she says. “There’s something about a woman cutting her hair off that indicates she’s serious. It definitely gives me an edge, but [the reaction] depressed me. I had to embody this older worker in order to carve out some space.”
The prevailing wisdom about age-related discrimination against women in the workplace is that it affects mature workers who fear obsolescence in our youth-obsessed culture. (See: Sutton Foster in TV Land’s Younger, whose 40-year-old character gets a foothold back in the work world by pretending to be 26.) But the opposite can also be true. Young female workers report feeling marginalized and patronized, having to prove themselves over and over. And so some young women are deliberately concealing their age in the workplace—through both style choices and carefully guarding their number—in the hope of being perceived as older, and therefore more serious and respectable.
It’s not simply youth that conjures up concern, but rather being identified as a millennial—an oft-maligned generation of workers associated with impulsivity, a lack of loyalty, unreasonable demands and social media addiction. “The rhetoric I hear from boomers is that millennials want so much but give so little,” says Emily. She’s not too far off: an Abacus Data survey from 2011 found that non-millennial Canadians commonly associated negative traits with millennials, with an overwhelming amount using descriptors such as “materialistic, coddled, lazy and entitled”—and just 13 percent calling them “motivated.” Little changed in a more recent 2013 survey from Ernst and Young, which found that a majority of people still consider millennials “entitled and concerned primarily about individual promotion.”
When young workers worry about stereotypes like these, it can be particularly problematic says Lisa Finkelstein, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University who studies generation issues in the workplace. “It can create a desire to overcompensate or the need to not reveal that you’re younger than some of your colleagues,” she says.
That may be why Kelly, a writer in Vancouver in her early 30s, never corrects the assumption that she’s older than she is. She’s spent hours looking at online videos on how to do “mature” makeup, too. “I know that when someone is viewed as being ‘young’ it can mean being passed over for certain kinds of opportunities and more money,” she says. She still recoils when people ask for her credentials, note her age, and reply with, “Wow, good for you.”
“I’m sure they don’t mean to be condescending, but it stings a bit—especially after you’ve heard that phrase for the 100th time,” says Kelly.
Age-related anxieties can stick with young women even when they’ve become entrenched in their field. Kat Tancock, a 37-year-old writer in Toronto, admits she’s often mistaken for being several years younger and wears glasses to appear older. “I always had a sense of being taken less seriously at work,” she says.
Colleagues don’t typically barge into your cubicle and demand to know your birthdate, but age can come up in a variety of ways in the workplace. Natalie Costa, who lives in Orlando, Florida, entered the workforce at 20 and says that her age became “embarrassingly transparent when I was invited to happy hours and couldn’t drink.” Costa, now 26, says that she has had coworkers dismissively refer to her as “just a kid,” and others plainly refuse to take instruction or advice from a younger colleague.
Similarly, Susan, 30, who works in Toronto’s safe and health field, says she’s heard office chatter from colleagues that associate youth with a lack of competence. She’s been called “sweetheart” and “honey” by her coworkers. “And in performance reviews I have specifically been told that I need to be patient with promotions because I am young and there’s lots of time for that,” she says.
Susan feels a real need to constantly defend her generation among older colleagues. “It’s funny because we’re labelled as being demanding, selfish, and unrealistic,” she says. “But I think many of those qualities help to achieve positive change in workplaces.”
Marissa Miller, a 24-year-old writer in Montreal, remembers panicking three years ago when she was asked her age in the middle of an interview for a social media management position. Once she disclosed, “the interviewer immediately started talking down to me,” she says. Miller was hired and tried to dress the part of a sophisticated, capable professional, splurging on uncomfortable heels and blazers. She wore her loose curls in a bun. “I wanted to create this aura of being more important and older than I was,” she says. “I didn’t want to be seen as an entitled millennial who expected to have everything handed to her.” Even with the right work ethic and wardrobe, Miller constantly felt the need to overcome her youth. “My boss called me ‘dear’ and ‘sweetie’ when he gave me my cheque every week,” she says. “It felt like he was giving me my allowance.”
Being young and a woman can create a double whammy in the workplace when it comes to feeling judged, says Jennifer Newman, a workplace psychologist in Vancouver. “We have four generations in the workplace right now, from people in their 20s to people in their 70s, and there’s a tension that arises,” she says. “It can be obvious that you’re not 40, so then it becomes something that you just have to manage and I’m seeing that a lot,” she says, adding that there is no legal obligation to disclose age in the Canadian workplace.
She says she hears the word “entitlement” thrown around a fair amount. “Boomers will say that the millennials don’t pay their dues and are more interested in work-life balance,” she says. Interestingly enough though, many of the things purportedly on the millennial workplace wish list—flexible schedules, meaningful work and better work-life balance—are appreciated by workers of all ages.
Like a growing number of Canadians, Miller now works from home and communicates with most of her employers over email. She says she now worries much less about being judged for her age and feels like she can just focus on doing her work: “I’m just worried about the best product, not whether my sneakers are patterned.”
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