Not everyone gets to start a career at age 14. But I was privileged to. Before I entered high school, I was working for a Pennsylvania state senator. Before graduating high school, I had written legislation and policy for that senator, plus two Philadelphia city councilmembers, political candidates, and nonprofit organizations — all with a variety of internal leaders and personalities.
I was also privileged to lead in many of those capacities — most recently as legislative director in the Philadelphia City Council. For the most part, those experiences were fun. But some of it was tough. Not because of the nature of the work — writing laws gave me life — but because of a series of inequities in how young professionals are treated in the workplace.
I can publish what you’re about to read because I’ve since left government work to write columns like these, urging citizens and leaders to think about our city’s issues. So, I would be remiss if I didn’t use this platform to address the toxic work cultures I’ve seen and been in because I know other young people in and out of politics are experiencing it, too. Certain folks won’t like this, and that’s okay. But someone needs to say it.
Older, established professionals: Get it together. It is awful (and awfully embarrassing) to hate on someone a third your age.
So, buckle up because I write to call out a number of the inequitable practices young professionals experience in the workplace. Older, established professionals: Listen up.
Calling young professionals “kid”
The first offense is to call a young professional a “kid.” It is demeaning. Young people bust their humps in the workplace just like everyone else. Actually, check that. We work harder. So, calling us kids, even when you don’t mean to be condescending, affronts the time and effort we put into doing the job well. For other groups, we understand patronizing terms akin to “kid” are inappropriate.
We’ve codified federal protections for those groups, insulating women, the LGBTQIA+ community, racial and ethnic groups, and religious groups from workplace discrimination. And people file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with regularity over violations of those protections. There are also pieces of federal legislation protecting other disadvantaged groups, like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, shielding people with disabilities from discrimination. But where are the protections against age discrimination for young people?
One would think these protections lay in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, but that Act only protects those over 40 years old. So, alas, young professionals are left to endure discrediting and degrading work cultures and practices. I, for example, was once in an environment where the person in charge frequently referred to me as a “little boy.” God forbid if I were to walk down the hall waving, “Hey there, old lady!“ No one would tolerate that, and we shouldn’t tolerate it when it comes to young people either.
Protections against workplace hostilities toward young people must be legislated. Lest we send the message that being young strips you of the right to dignified treatment.
Underpaying young professionals — or not paying them at all
Runner-up on the list of horribles is the practice among employers of not compensating young professionals for their work because, unlike their older colleagues, young professionals are assumed to lack bills to pay or families to feed. This, of course, overlooks other costs: transportation to and from the office, or to work-related events, food, appropriate office attire, and the like. But that notwithstanding, a staffer’s personal responsibilities, or lack thereof, is not the business of an employer as far as payroll is concerned.
Compensation ought to be determined by the amount of time and the quality of services the employee provides. That’s it. If personal obligations are considered, it should only be to enhance pay to help the staffer meet their familial responsibilities. It should never be used to justify underpaying an employee.
There’s also a culture of employers getting over on their younger staffers to save a buck. This has happened to me several times.
When I started in the professional world, I was so blinded by getting my foot in the door that I permitted employers to not compensate me. Family members and even some colleagues would nudge me, telling me to advocate for pay. But, back then, I was better at advocating for others than I was for myself. So, for a few years, (yes, years) I worked like a full-time employee without a nickel to show for it.
Like most young people looking to prove themselves, I was grinding, working wild hours, pouring effort into everything I did — even when it was tedious. I was doing more than some salaried employees, yet I remained uncompensated. That upset me, and I eventually mustered the courage to ask for compensation, and it worked. My employer at that time agreed it was overdue. But it took multiple years to acknowledge and correct.
I’m sure we all were once that younger version of myself: happy to be there and willing to accept anything — or, in my case, nothing. Guard those young people; don’t rob them of what they’re due just to preserve the office budget.
Being threatened by young people’s successes
I am blessed to have amassed a fruitful village of mentors who pour their wisdom, knowledge, experience, and time into me. Many have become dear friends. Whether they know it or not, they usher calm winds beneath my wings when I fly into turbulence. Through them, I’ve learned to negotiate, communicate, network, lead, and much more. Every young professional deserves at least one person to be that for them.
Sadly, in gerontocratic institutions like the ones I work in (government and politics), it’s not guaranteed that you’ll receive that. Some people despise young professionals. Be it for outpacing their career trajectory when they were your age, for knowing more, or getting more press than they receive. (I’ve experienced all three).
Blissfully ignorant as I was, I didn’t expect to meet people like that. Why should anyone? What middle-aged adult would be so indecent as to be openly hostile toward a 14, 16, or 18-year-old? But, as I learned through trial and error, when the average age gap between you and your colleagues is four decades, there will be those who place a target on your back.
It is not unusual to encounter older people threatened by young folks who do the same job (even though they’re not paid the same for it). These sorts of people will do and say everything they can to crush you. I was once told by someone I looked up to, “I don’t know why they put you in charge of this, you’re just a kid.” (They said this, by the way, because I got a promotion they wanted).
The egos you encounter as a young professional are out-of-this-world. Older, established professionals: Get it together. It is awful (and awfully embarrassing) to hate on someone a third your age.
And truly, those types misunderstand us. We don’t seek interoffice competition; we seek bountiful experience and mentorship. That’s all. But these older, arrogant people in the workplace are so set on the superiority they feel comes with age, that they misinterpret young people’s successes and ambitions as threats. I know several young professionals — in and out of politics — who’ve had similar experiences, and it’s discouraging. Absolutely crushing. These abusive, anti-youth, ageist work cultures have got to stop.
Now, to be sure, I am not calling on anyone to treat young professionals with kid gloves. Just the opposite: Treat them with the same respect and dignity that you would a 40-year-old. And pay them like it too if that’s the level of services they’re offering.
You owe it to society to nurture those who will come after you. Embrace young people’s ambition, let them learn from you, and celebrate their successes without envious reservation. Don’t fall short of that call.
Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College. He is the former aide of two Philadelphia City Councilmembers and a Pennsylvania State Senator.
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