Young People Eh: What it’s like Being the Baby at Work
Most of us have been the youngest employee at work at some point in our lives, and we know what comes along with it… some benefits… and some even more serious drawbacks. And I’m not just talking lower salaries.
But first, let’s talk about the good stuff. Anyone who’s been in this position knows that the young’uns in the office can get babied by older colleagues in some very nice ways. By babied, I mean FED. Come in empty-handed in the morning, and find yourself getting offered doubles, a piece of bake and saltfish, or a cheese paste sandwich? Your co-workers real like you, right?
“Being the youngest in a workplace is a great ego boost for so many reasons.”
Being the youngest in a workplace is a great ego boost for so many reasons. The most superficial one? People automatically think you’re cool – not just for your own merits (in my case, let’s face it, I’m not exactly the coolest). Older co-workers assume that because you’re young, you “get” young people – that oh-so-desirable audience that so many businesses trip over themselves trying to court .
But sometimes, you’re just NOT cool, and even if you are, that’s not what you go to work for – and it’s certainly not part of the professional persona you want to cultivate. You just want to be seen in the same light as others, for the quality of your work alone.
It can be hard to be considered on equal footing when people can’t get past your age, and the presumptions they have about people of that age. Some of the same things that make being a young professional so great are also what make it innately problematic.
For all the “cool” they think you may embody, has your company every had an honest chat with younger employees to understand how they feel about issues, or what they think about the direction the company is taking? Or do they want you to shut up, sit at your desk, and do what you’re told from 8 to 4? You know that young people aren’t just a herd – young folks aren’t some unified and monolithic group. “Young people” have varying ideas, likes, and dislikes, just like anyone else, but try convincing some older colleagues of this.
“… in reality, those same opinions you put forth can be seen as rebellious…”
On paper, your youth may be an asset – but in reality, those same opinions you put forth can be seen as rebellious, or based on lack of experience, and completely dismissed if they don’t come from a book, a manual, or a report by some external consultant who claims to know “young people”.
And therein lies the main problem. It’s all too easy for older colleagues to assume that young people have no experience, and even less knowledge, and treat them accordingly. Sure, we may not have as many years of work under our belts, but that doesn’t mean that our viewpoints and experiences aren’t valid, too, or that our new or “strange” ideas can just be dismissed.
And who hasn’t heard someone in a work environment go on and on about “the youth of today”? Too many people think young people are lazy, undertrained, and are not willing to put in the necessary work to succeed. Even worse, the loyalty of young people to their organizations is all too often questioned, as people think young folks will just up and look for another job, and leave their organization if they don’t get what they want for themselves out of their position. Sure, it may no longer be the kind of world where people work for one company for their entire lives – but that doesn’t mean we’re not willing to put in the work to make the organization succeed.
We office babies also get saddled with unfair expectations. We may be young, but most of us have responsibilities outside of work, even if they are different than those of our older and more established co-workers.
Just because we have a few wrinkles less doesn’t mean we WANT to spend days and nights at the office (or can do this, in practical terms). And though we definitely know we need to “pay our dues”, many employers take advantage of our eagerness to impress to stick us with tasks that they wouldn’t ask others to do.
Older co-workers assume that young people have energy and drive, no coffee/Red Bull required. They – usually mistakenly – harbour fantasies of the young folk flitting from late days at the office to cocktails with clients or friends, to liming at bars and dancing, after which they assume the young’un plops onto his or her bed, magically sleeps the travails of the day off, and returns to the office the next day, bright-eyed, fresh and ready to do it again. To be honest, most young folks don’t have the energy to do this on a daily basis, nor do we want to… but we may be able to pull it off, if needed, and, at the very least, it’s flattering to have people think we’re impervious to the sleep imperative.
As for the ladies, we all know that there are particular problems that go along with being the youngest woman around. Too many employers still think squarely in the 1950s and assume that young female employees are just biding their time, waiting to get married and have kids to leave their careers (or jobs, as they’d see it) behind – and their employers in the lurch. That means young women are often penalized for this in subtle ways – by, say, not receiving the “big” or important assignments, or overtly – through comments made about us leaving to have kids or getting passed over for promotions, increased responsibility, and raises. It may be changing slowly, but it’s still happening – and it’s grossly unfair.
Or, if you’re a young woman, you may find yourself suffering the curse of the secretary. Not that there is anything wrong with being a secretary. But if you’re young and female, you may get unfairly pigeonholed into doing administrative work because “that’s what women do”, regardless of your job title, training, experience, or career ambitions.
So, it’s a trade-off.
I don’t know about you, but being the office baby is more hassle than the doubles I’m fed and aura of cool that comes with it. I’d rather be uncool and respected for my opinions than thought of as a young dynamo… And this may be the only reason I have for wanting more candles on my birthday cake.