Most research on age discrimination covers bias against older people in the workforce.
But if the media’s anti-millennial messages are any indication of what’s going on at work, younger employees may face discrimination, too. One survey found that employers are reluctant to hire people under 30 because they’re “unpredictable and ‘they don’t know how to work.’” Another study published in the Human Resource Management Journal found that discrimination for being “too young” is at least as common as discrimination for being “too old.”
Unfortunately, unlike our older colleagues who can sue for it, millennials aren’t protect by law. Discriminating against current or prospective employees on the basis of age isn’t illegal if they’re under 40.
Granted, laws protecting young workers would be hard to enforce. The existing laws apply if the discrimination isn’t plausibly based on any other factor but age. For millennials, inexperience—a valid, legal reason to fire or not hire—and youth are practically synonymous.
So overcoming age discrimination is up to us. I asked three young entrepreneurs how they overcame the setbacks of their age. Zach Obront, 26, is Tucker Max’s cofounder of Book in a Box. Mattan Griffel, 28, founded the coding education platform One Month. And Sol Orwell, 32, is a veteran entrepreneur and the founder of Examine.com.
Here are my five takeaways:
1. Create your opportunity.
Obront thinks people are bad at evaluating risk. “There are a lot of things you’re unlikely to succeed in, but there’s no downside in trying.” But because they’re a long-shot and getting rejected could hurt, “people avoid opportunities.”
Obront did the opposite. Once a month in college, he took a day to try a bunch of things that would probably fail. One of those undertakings was emailing I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell’s Tucker Max, who had recently blogged on a topic Obront was covering in an essay. Obront asked for advice and where to turn for more information. Max replied. For the next two years,Obront emailed Max every few months. By the time Obront saw Max ask for help on some work, he felt comfortable sending an email saying, “Hey, I think I would be a good fit — do you want to chat about it?”
Obront helped Max with writing and managing a website. Their casual working relationship eventually lead to their decision to be cofounders.
Orwell echoes Obront’s lesson. In Sol’s early days as an entrepreneur, “I learned how to be a sales person, selling what you have to offer.” Even if all you have to offer is an email, or some side hustle skills, that’s sometimes enough to get the ball rolling on a larger opportunity.
2. Find complements.
Obront, Orwell and Griffel all have cofounders who are significantly older or younger than they are. All recommend it. Obront explains, “A lot of people would benefit from cofounders with not just different experience but who are also in different stages of life.”
When Book in a Box’s team grew last year, Obront said it boosted his credibility to have 41-year-old Max alongside him in meetings with a bunch of new employees.
Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, cultivate complementary relationships with older people. Obront says he enjoys managing people fresh out of college who remind him of himself. Many older managers feel the same: they want to help young hustlers succeed. Seek out these kinds of partners, bosses and mentors.
3. Get good.
One reason age discrimination can be so murky for millennials is entry-level job traits are often vague and ill-defined—requiring, for example, soft skills like “communication” or “leadership.” It’s harder to discriminate against someone who blatantly has the defined, technical skills you need.
Obront suggests developing “an objective expertise in specific areas that are relevant.” For example, Obront may not know how to manage people, but he knows the ins and outs of book publishing and marketing. “If I’m talking to an entrepreneur about how to use a book to support their business, I could be 14 years old, but what we’re talking about gives me authority immediately because I know my stuff.”
When you have a foundation of expertise, you’re more “palatable,” said Obront. “A lot of millennials are thinking, ‘how do I become a thought leader?’ Well, you need the more micro skills first in order to earn [older people’s] attention.”
Orwell agrees: “Experience is underrated.” We celebrate the Zuckerbergs of the world, “but they’re the exception … Experience is more of a positive than people imagine.”
4. Work where age doesn’t matter.
There are good and bad environments for young leaders.
At corporate conferences, Obront feels an attitude among 50-plus year olds: They think, “‘I put in so much time. These kids can’t be worthy of this.’ There’s a little bit of disdain or negativity.” In consequence, Obront and Max typically send their older CEO with a corporate background to these conferences instead. “They see him more as a peer.” By contrast,Obront feels right at home at entrepreneurship conferences.
In the late ‘90s when Orwell was a teenage entrepreneur, online was the perfect place for him. “The anonymity of the Internet was a great way of hiding the fact that I was still relatively young at the time.” People on Reddit and other forums don’t care how old you are, Orwell explained. “As long as you seem to be a competent human being, they’ll teach you something.”
The Internet was and is a great place for young people to start a business. Orwell was so young he couldn’t register his own business, domain name or bank account without his parents signing off. But his argument as an entrepreneur was, “I’m a kid and I know technology better than you do … I was able to harness my age and make it useful.” Griffel sums, “There are some topics where youth can be an advantage. Technology is one area where older generations defer to our expertise.”
Freelancing, entrepreneurship and remote working opportunities are all ways to avoid age discrimination. At Orwell’s company, a fully remote operation, “All we care about is the quality of work you produce.”
5. Practice humility.
In an age where the title “expert” reigns, it’s tempting to pretend we know more stuff than we do. We’re just trying to keep up with everyone else.
But one trend I’ve noticed among dozens of successful millennials is they know their one or two things and leave the rest to other people. When I asked Orwell how I could apply his startup experience to corporate environments, he responded, “I know what’s not in my wheelhouse, and that’s not in my wheelhouse.” It’s brave to admit you don’t know something, but it will earn you respect long-term.
On teaching a beginner coding class at Columbia Business School, Griffel explained that he deliberately doesn’t act like an authority. “I try to never put myself above other people,” he said. This attitude helps students open up and makes Griffel the BFG of beginner coding.