Ageism Is Real, and it Goes Both Ways

“You’re 33? I could have sworn you were 18! Well, at least you’ll look good when you’re 40!” I bet you’ve either heard that before, or maybe you’ve said it to another fellow baby-faced individual like me either at a networking event or in passing conversation. While it may seem like an offhanded compliment, there is a downside to having a youthful appearance that doesn’t match your age, especially when it flows into the professional environment.

You’re 33? I could have sworn you were 18! Well, at least you’ll look good when you’re 40!

As a young female executive who has been in the industry for over 12 years, these comments about my age can be patronizing and full of assumptions. Normally, it’s impolite to discuss age, but when the perception is that you are young, people feel that they can talk to you in any way they want (thank you Buzzfeed, I feel seen). Whether it’s a conference coordinator being patronizing after a speaking engagement, new connections spending more time discussing my youthful appearance than my credentials, or clients questioning my experience, I find myself on the defensive about my age constantly.

Related topics: Human Rights in the Digital Age – Ageism – An Equal Opportunity Bias – Organic Bri

Ageism is real, and it goes both ways. Traditionally, ageism has been used to describe discrimination against older people, but it can also mean younger people being treated differently in a professional setting due to their looks or status. A recent Human Resource Management Journal study found that discrimination for being “too young” is as common as discrimination for being “too old.” The reality is, all assumptions suck! There’s nothing about someone’s age that means that they won’t perform well in a certain job, and stereotyping young people as inexperienced, out of touch, or entitled is simply ignorant. You know the saying, when you assume that makes an ass out of you and me, and it’s the truth. 


The sustainability industry is developing, and more and more young people (and young “looking” people) are entering the sustainable workforce. We’ve increasingly seen the fight against the climate crisis led by youth, and they bring more to the table than just digital savvy. Groups such as the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization advocating for political action on climate, American Conservation Coalition Campus, a student-focused organization changing the narrative for conservative republicans on climate and of course, Greta Thunberg’s movement of School Strikes for Climate, are changing the game on climate action.

If we’re going to solve the greatest challenges of our generation, we will need all minds, young and old, to come together

Bias is real, whether conscious or unconscious, and ageism has always been a core challenge that all people face early in their careers. This mentality is only magnified by the media’s anti-millennial messages. But if we, as sustainability advocates are working to respect the environment, we need to respect all people, too. 

At the end of the day, I challenge all of you to treat everyone equally, and come with an open mind to whomever comes to the table. If we’re going to solve the greatest challenges of our generation, we will need all minds, young and old, to come together.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About the Author /

Ruth Lee is the Vice President at Sustainable Business Consulting, with 12+ years experience helping clients develop and implement sustainability strategy, conduct stakeholder engagement to assess materiality, navigate executive level buy-in and manage greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, she specializes in data analysis, performance indicator measurement, carbon footprinting, and responding to public reporting programs such as the Climate Registry and the Carbon Disclosure Project. Ruth has helped 15+ companies quantify and measure their carbon emissions and set their sustainability vision, and reduction goals. She has developed verifiable data management tools for clients in compliance with various external programs such as the Climate Registry, the CDP and the Global Reporting Initiative to help her clients measure their performance over time with data that stands up to third party scrutiny by providing a clear audit trail and streamlined data collection processes. You can follow her on Twitter at @Ruth11Lee.

Scroll Up