Not Too Young, Not Too Old, Just…
Experiencing Ageism in the Office as an ECP
From as young as I can remember, adults were always asking me what I wanted to be when I was older. And being the future-thinker that I am, I always excitedly answered, “Rockette! Lawyer! Doctor!” until I found my calling as a psychologist at the ripe old age of 14. I could not wait to go to college and embark on my journey of being a professional. Of course, at that time I was unaware of the importance of the journey over the destination, or that I could contribute any sort of value until I reached that destination of expertise.
As I grew, both personally and professionally, I noticed my self-confidence increase with each passing milestone—most notably, my transition from doctoral internship to post-doctoral fellow. While on post-doc, there was a difference. The expectation was to be a professional and not a trainee. This strangely seemed to flip flop as I became a licensed psychologist.
As ECPs, we bring a unique perspective to our respective workplaces. We know we do not know everything, but we feel comfortable enough knowing that our foundation is solid. I think the hardest adjustment, however, is remembering that our non-ECP colleagues do not know everything, either.
We can learn from each other! I think this was difficult for me to remember for two reasons. The first was that I had to adjust to my own identity as a professional. That one seemed obvious and was something I certainly anticipated.
The second reason, something that took me by surprise, was that some colleagues talked to me in a way that not only pointed out differences in our ages and years in the field, but also made me feel as though I could not bring anything to the table. We would not tell trainees that their ideas or inexperience was a bad thing; rather, we would encourage them to find their voices and look at their vision as fresh and new. Why would we change our tune once that person becomes licensed?
Luckily for me (and hopefully for you, too!), I found a great support system with the other ECPs at work. I was glad that we could go through this time together, but was frustrated that we had to go through this at all. As it turns out, our experience was not unique.
According to O’Shaughnessy and Burnes (2016), there are not enough resources to meet the specific needs of ECPs—and seasoned professionals may not even realize that these needs exist. As ECPs, we are not necessarily receiving crucial mentorship about navigating the professional world, the stresses of student loans, and licensing and credentialing.
Instead, we tend to receive messages that being in the field for a longer amount of time will help us become better professionals, both clinically and administratively. While potentially well-intentioned, the assurance that we will “get it” in the future leaves many of us feeling unsupported now. In the study conducted by O’Shaughnessy and Burnes (2016), for example, a participant expressed her frustration with feeling patronized and having the more established therapists at her place of work shut her down for not buying into the “complacency” of that center’s norms (p. 801).
In an article with a title that captures this theme (“We’re Not ‘Kids’”), Novotney (2016) discusses how ECPs have experienced ageism in the workplace. Interestingly, the participants noted that these comments were “made in jest” (p. 52). However, I find it hard to imagine that being a plausible excuse if we reverse the roles and it were a younger individual making an ageist comment toward someone senior. Furthermore, because professionals tend to be obtaining their doctoral degrees at an older age than perhaps their senior colleagues did, their senior staff may inappropriately see them as incompetent or “young.”
While I do not believe any of this is necessarily intentional, we are bound to make the same mistakes as our predecessors if we do not learn from our own experiences. I know I will intentionally strive to forge my own path as I continue with my professional growth, and I will one day be on the other side of the discussion. I certainly would not like to replay this dynamic when I am no longer an ECP!
So what can we do as ECPs and what might be helpful from our non-ECP colleagues? In considering my own experiences as well as talking to other ECPs, I noticed the following themes emerging as suggestions for both ECPs and our non-ECP colleagues.
Tips for ECPs
Continue to use your voice
It is an important and valuable voice. We might need to continue to hone the way in which we use our voices, but reminding our colleagues that we have something to say will be helpful in establishing our professional identities.
Be clear about what is helpful and what is not
For the most part, our senior counterparts do not want to belittle us and may be unaware that they are doing so. Let them know how this affects your ability to be a strong professional at your workplace. However, you can also let them know ways in which they can be helpful. Rather than coming off as a know-it-all, this allows you to create a firm boundary and potentially gain mentorship that can help you navigate the ins and outs of the field.
There is not a lot of information regarding this issue for ECPs or more senior professionals who have ECPs on staff. Educate yourself about age discrimination in all its forms, and be aware of your own potential biases against older colleagues—and other ECPs! Let us do our part to ensure that members of the next generation of ECPs do not experience ageism at any stage of their careers.
Tips for Non-ECPs
Use your own experiences
Think back to what it was like when you were an ECP. What do you wish you had known, and how do you wish had been treated by your senior staff? You can help us break the cycle!
Remember that ageism is discrimination
Most of you probably attend or create talks and/or CEUs about discrimination in the workplace. Ageism, which includes comments made to those younger than you, is real and hurtful; if you would not engage in other types of discrimination, I imagine you would not want to engage in ageism or perpetuate intergenerational models of it. If you reflect on your own experiences of having been stereotyped or treated differently based on age, I hope this awareness can be useful to you in this context, too.
Use your current experiences… with flexibility
You have much to offer, and ECPs would love to hear it! You know what has worked and what has not worked in your experience. Instead of simply saying that an idea will not work, help us to understand why, from your perspective, it is not likely to be successful. Also remember that your experience is your experience, not necessarily “the way it is.”
Early career is a time of great opportunity and substantial challenges. Some of those challenges could be ameliorated by ECPs and non-ECPs working together to value one another’s opinions and contributions. The tips provided here will hopefully help each of us begin a dialogue about these important issues, paving a smoother path for all ECPs to come.
Cite This Article
Kaplan, J. (2017). Not too young, not too old, just…Experiencing ageism in the office as an ECP. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 52(2), 56-58.
Novotney, A. (2016). We’re not ‘kids’. Monitor on Psychology, 47(7), 52. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/07-08/graduate-kids.aspx
O’Shaughnessy, T., & Burnes, T. R. (2016). The career adjustment experiences of women early career psychologists. The Counseling Psychologist, 44(6), 786-814. doi: 10.1177/0011000016650264