Keeping Younger Workers Out of the Workplace

The sharp rise in youth unemployment that has accompanied the financial crisis has been a topic of much discussion and debate. Younger workers, or young people who want to be working, have a lot to lose right now, and increasingly have less to gain. Many are struggling not just with unemployment, but high student loan debt that is impossible to escape. Pressures to start families, or support them. Reminders that the previous generation was buying houses, or having children, or engaging in other markers of social and personal success, ‘at your age.’

There’s a reason scores of young people are unemployed, and part of it is ageism in the workplace. Just as older workers are pushed out because they’re expensive and not valued, younger workers are barred from the workplace altogether. The tactics used are very different, but the end result is the same. As is the slyness. No workplace is going to openly admit that it does not hire young people, not least because age discrimination in employment is not legal. It’s also true, though, that much of the discussion about ageism in employment surrounds adults over 40 years of age, not young workers.

The barriers to employment for young people are myriad. There are, for instance, the mounting experience requirements. Even entry-level jobs seem to expect experience, which is a contradiction for those who pause to think about it, but this doesn’t seem to bother employers writing up job descriptions and requirements. If you cannot get a waiting job without at least a year of experience, how are you supposed to get the experience you need to become a waiter? Through the back door, of course, through starting as a busser and proving yourself and gradually being promoted to a wait position.

But when you’re the person poring through job listings and all you can see everywhere you look is reminders that you should have experience, it’s extremely disheartening. When your resume has few or no entries and an interviewer sneers at it, this is disheartening too. Entry-level positions that are really entry-level, designed for people who do not have experience but are ready to learn, are thin on the market. For college graduates with degrees they were told would help them find work, entering the fierce competition for employment can be jarring, especially if they were fortunate enough to not have to work in school.

Positions with any kind of actual chance of good pay and benefits typically require experience, which is not an unreasonable thing to ask, but the ways to get that experience are increasingly closed to many workers. Internships for college students, for example, are an excellent way not just to get experience, but to get a foot in the door with a prospective employer. Companies with good interns may ask them to come back in following years, may extend job offers after graduation. Which is great, for people who can afford the cost of participating in internships.

There are, too, the subtle reminders that young workers aren’t ‘suitable.’ Young workers are routinely told to tidy up and sanitise their appearance for job interviews, which means no weird hair, no piercings, no tattoos, modest clothing, even in workplaces where all of these things may be evident on other people who already have jobs in that workplace. Because these things project a young and unreliable look, you see, and you must impress employers with your maturity, by stuffing yourself in a box. Young candidates for competitive positions are often overlooked in favor of older applicants who have the magic not just of actual experience, but also that air of ‘maturity.’

Having worked in human resources, I know firsthand that young workers are often considered risks. Unreliable. Dicey. They might not stay long. Won’t be committed to the job. No one outright told me to reject younger applicants, but people were often surprised when I called young people in for interviews, let alone recommended them for positions. ‘Don’t you think,’ someone would say, ‘that so-and-so is more experienced and might be a better fit for the job?’

I know firsthand, too, the discrimination that young people, especially teens, experience if they can claw their way into the workforce. At a previous job that had a theft problem, I noted that all the people over 20 were taken out of the running immediately, and suspicions fell squarely upon the high school students and recent graduates in the workplace. They were made to feel extremely uncomfortable, grilled on their commitment to the job, watched like hawks whenever they opened registers during their shifts. The thief turned out to be a 30-year-old, but that sense of discrimination lingered. Supervising, I was often told to ride the young workers hard because of course they would be too lazy to work without direction. And I was scarcely over 20 myself at the time.

Keeping young workers out of the workplace doesn’t just have ramifications now; this is not just about young people who are shiftless and desperate and are being increasingly reminded that they don’t matter and there isn’t much interest in addressing their plight. It is also about the fact that an entire generation is missing out on early employment opportunities. You know, that chance to get experience that they will need to apply for jobs in the future? And an entire generation is losing precious years of working and saving and building something for themselves.

I saw a report recently claiming that middle-aged workers had it worst because they didn’t have time to rebuild, like younger workers who lose their jobs or are pushed out of the workplace do. The very idea that we need to ┬áhave a contest to decide who is worse off right now seemed laughable to me; so many young workers are already starting with a negative balance. They don’t have time to rebuild either.