Feel old? How to battle ageism in design (and in life)

Feel old? How to battle ageism in design (and in life)

Ageism is discrimination against an individual because of their age. 

Ageism is a real thing. In fact, ageism in the workplace is bigger than sexism and racism combined. And yet no one ever talks about it. 

We all get old. So, if we don’t address ageism, we’ll all eventually face it. That’s a scary prospect. And, what’s scarier is that, when we say ‘old’, we’re not talking about 80 and 90 year olds. We’re talking about people in their late 30s and 40s – people in their prime! This isn’t just a wild assumption, the figures back it up. There’s a huge drop off of designers from 40 onwards. 40! 

And it’s not just the 30 - 40 year olds who should be worried. Ageism works both ways! You younger designers need to be on your guard too. Because ageism isn’t just about young people discriminating against older people, it’s also about older workers judging their younger colleagues.

While younger people perceive older designers to be outdated, out of touch, and stuck in their ways,  those older designers think their younger counterparts lack experience, they label them all as “too trendy”. 

It’s a huge problem. But it’s virtually ignored. Why? Maybe it’s because it happens to us all at some stage? While sexism and racism will only ever apply to certain segments of the community, we are all young at one point, and we will all be old. So maybe we just accept it’s going to happen to us?

Does age have an advantage in the design agency?

Let’s delve a little deeper and dispel some of the myths around ageing in the design industry…

Physical advantages

We all get older and there’s nothing we can do about it. And, when you get older, it’s natural to experience more physical problems and complaints. You might not be able to pull those back-to-back all-nighters to meet deadlines like you used to. Sure, you can pull an all-nighter if you really need to,  but you’ll feel the effects significantly more. And that sucks. 

But while older designers may not be able to handle back-to-back all-nighters anymore, their years of experience means that won’t have to. And, to be quite honest, why would they want to? We’ve learned how to work smarter, plan better and know what they are capable of and can avoid these late-night bangers.

Mental advantages 

The stereotype of older people is that they don’t pick up new concepts as quickly, and they can’t (or won’t) adapt and learn. 

But that’s simply not the case. How do we know? SCIENCE. Neuroplasticity lasts well into your 70s meaning, if you keep learning up, you can easily keep learning well into your 70s, and certainly beyond you 40s! 

On the other hand, it’s also scientifically proven that the brain doesn’t stop developing until you’re well into your twenties, and the full extent and capabilities of your brain continue to develop into your mid-thirties. 

So our creativity and the ability to process things isn’t age related at all. You can’t dismiss someone’s mental ability based purely on their age. 

Experience 

The golden goose! A big part of successful design and creativity in general is thinking through systems, making unexpected connections, asking the right questions, and digging deeper to solve problems. So, in this case, age DOES have an advantage. Why? You’ve been there before. Say so long to spending days creating personas, weeks learning about industries, you've been there before, know the space, the people, the problems and can pull from those past experiences you remember.

So, it’s clear that it’s not your age that dictates if you’re a good designer. It’s about what you’ve learned and what you’re going to do with that knowledge. Put it this way, there’s no way that if you’re a high flying, super star who just happens to be 41, that you’ll be told to get out the door because you’re too old. It’s about the person, their thirst for knowledge, and their love for the roles. 

Although ageism exists in the form of stereotypes, in reality, people do it to themselves. If you can’t continually evolve with the trends and the times, you will fade away. You need to keep evolving. Adapt or die. 

The secret to avoiding age discrimination

So, we’ve established why age discrimination might exist, and whether there is any truth behind the stereotypes, but how do you avoid age discrimination as a designer? 

The secret is to keep relative in design – keep learning, keep designing, keep growing. Keep pushing yourself. Don’t, whatever happens, stand still. Because standing still leads to complacency, and that’s the easiest way to be seen as old.    

The skills and experience you’ve learned in your career, supported by the ones you’ll continue to learn, make you perfectly qualified for leadership positions. So don’t just coast along in your role, strive for more! If you keep pushing on, evolving, and adapting, those around you will view you as a leader, someone to look up. And leaders rarely grow old.  

Final words to all designers, young and old

Let’s round this off with some advice to designers of all ages:

- Don’t accept complacency, keep learning and adapting
- Don’t give up
- Don’t be an ass and fire someone because they’re 40
- Equally, don’t be an ass because you’ve turned 40

Head over to our podcast to hear more of our ramblings about battling ageism in design.