I was on my fourth cup of coffee within the 12 hour period; that point where it all starts tasting like a combination of tang, dust, and liquid sugar. But it was keeping me warm and alert. It had been a full day of student advising, advisory meetings, and program planning. But it was also homecoming and risk management was needed for our late night programming. I ran to Starbucks for another Venti cup of sugary amazing-ness and got ready for the evening.
After about two or three hours, I could notice that the chill of the night was taking it’s toll. However, we had three more hours to go, bags of candy and hot beverages to consume, and student crises to avert. All of a sudden, a co-worker leaned over and whispered, “I’m going to go soon. You can stay up late and do this kind of thing because you’re young”. She explained about her children, all the hours she’d put in, how far she commuted, and how difficult the late hours were on her body (none of which, she assumed, impacted me because I was young). I nodded… and woke up my partner with a call to buy more coffee.
A fair amount of research exists regarding old age stereotypes and age discrimination in the workforce (Posthuma & Campion, 2008). However, literature seems to be a bit slim on the assumptions of younger professionals in the workplace. What does exist regarding millennials in the workplace seems to be a bit one-sided and negative. Twenge & Campbell (2008) suggest that millennial coworkers will bring “unrealistically high expectations, a high need for praise, difficulty with criticism, an increase in creativity demands, job-hopping, ethics scandals, casual dress, and shifting workplace norms for women” (p. 862). Ummm…Yikes.
We know that there is a difference in the perception of us and the work that we do, due to age. These differences are processed through the hilarious commentaries on what it’s like to be a young professional working a college, conversations at conferences, and networking with colleagues. These differences in perception show themselves in:
- The look of surprise when you realize we’ve had a few years in the field
- The shock, awe, and occasional, “Can I ask how old you are?” when you realize we are competent and capable enough to do our jobs well
- The sometimes-well-meaning-but-also-condescending bouts of unwarranted advice
- The assumptions of how our knowledge of technology can assist office purposes
- The assumptions of our work / life balance being easier to obtain
Conversation with younger professionals in the field often yields some interesting insights on the ways we’ve learned to reframe perceptions regarding our professional identity, expertise, and age. My typical and favorite response: “I’m not as young as I look, but I don’t tell my age. You can refer to me as youthfully effervescent”. A colleague of mine often employs irony: “You’re surprised because I did my job?” One of my boldest and brightest friends, a PhD student and student affairs professional, often responds, “I’m sorry. Have you received a copy of my resume?” Are we just snarky? No. Scholars assert that such processes / responses stem from the realms of impression management and impression construction (Leary & Kowalski, 1990).
We’ve done the work. We’ve put in the hours. We’ve averted crises, helped managed budgets, written proposals, and reworked what student affairs looks like both online and offline. But the impression management does not come from a sense of personal or generational arrogance.
“Impression management is motivated by a) goal relevance of impressions, b) value of desired goals, c) discrepancy between desired and current image (Leary & Kowalski, 1990, p. 36)”. Simply put, the goal is to engage in fulfilling career paths in the field… and the impressions some carry about our age, level of expertise, and / or work / life responsibilities impacts our ability to reach that goal.
There is an understanding (and sometimes, humor) about the questions we get from stakeholders within student affairs, namely students / parents etc. (my favorite is, ‘What year are you?’). Yet it is less palatable when these behaviors come from the colleagues, mentors, and professionals we respect in the field. What happens then? Well, responses seem to vary:
“Once motivated to create certain impressions, people may alter their behaviors to affect others’ impressions of them. This involves not only choosing the kind of impression to create, but deciding precisely how they will go about doing so (such as deciding whether to create the desired impression via self-description, nonverbal behavior, or props, for example) (Leary & Kowalski, 1990, p. 36)”.
How many times have I self-described myself by way of my credentials at conferences, board meetings, and other field-specific events? How many times have I thought intently about what to wear and what not to wear to communicate my professional identity nonverbally? How many times have I gathered my “props”: institutional name badges, portfolios, leather bound briefcases (and the occasional accent of MAC Ruby Woo red lipstick. It just says, ‘Yes, I embody professional fierceness”). It’s a daily reality. However, this type of image management is not something that I hear very limited conversation about within the field of student affairs.
So, as we think about equity and inclusion within the field of student affairs, I wonder if we have truly engaged the topic of perceptions we carry regarding age and perception. Who do we bring to the table to build our programs? The more challenging question remains, who do we bring to the table when it is time to build our policy? As mentors & colleagues with deeper experience in the field, do we share our understanding without assumptions about how age informs level of expertise? As supervisors, do we have the conversations around age and professional identity, objectives for success, and the path to career fulfillment, regardless of age? Or are we too busy trying to figure out exactly how old someone is…?
Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1990). Impression management: A literature review and two-component model. Psychological bulletin, 107(1), 34.
Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, S. M. (2008). Generational differences in psychological traits and their impact on the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(8), 862-877.
Posthuma, R., & Campion, M. (2008). Age stereotypes in the workplace: Common stereotypes, moderators, and future research directions. Journal of Management.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Marsha Herman-Betzen on A Story of a Life in SA