Bias, Ageism & the Museum Workplace


In a lot of small ways work is like school. We do it because most of us have to. Some do well; some not so well. And it’s a place where, like it or not, our likes and dislikes are frequently on display. As leaders, you need to make everyone feel valued, wanted and needed. You need to banish your own biases so others can and will too.

One of the hardest things about workplace bias–and I say this from my place as a white woman of a certain age and privilege–is to flip what you pay attention to. If you continually look for the source of your hurt–the colleague who reminds you that you are over weight, disabled, LGBTQ, a woman, really tall, a person of color or some combination of all those things– you’ll find it. That’s called confirmation bias. You may feel momentarily better about feeling bad, but will your interactions with problem co-workers change? Probably not.

Please note: I do not, under any circumstances, want to diminish the effects of bias. Implicit or explicit, it is hurtful, demeaning, and isolating. It diverts focus, and it shouldn’t be allowed. But we work with humans. And we’re all needy.

Having said that, I want to talk about being old(er) in the museum workplace. Depending on your age, older could be 40, but for this post, let’s assume older is Boomers, members of your staff born between 1946 and 1964. First of all, in case you haven’t noticed there are a lot of Boomers, 77 million to be exact, and while 10,000 retire every day, many Boomers have inadequate savings for retirement, and need or want to work longer. So, if you’re the typical museum leader your staff will likely include Millennials (currently the largest segment of the workforce), Gen-Xers and Boomers, and range in age from early 20s to early 70’s. That means every time you gather for a meeting you’re bridging a 60-year life experience gap, not to mention differences in approach to work. When many Boomers came of age, they expected to find a job, get promoted, settle down, and 35 or 40 years later, say goodbye to colleagues, and retire. Millennials may have as many as a dozen jobs throughout their careers. Coaxing these groups into teams, building respect, and parking bias at the door is a challenge.

So do Boomers experience ageism? The short answer is yes. If you’re unfamiliar with this, here are some common examples:

  1. She should retire already. Alternately known as “When is she going to retire so I can get promoted?” Let’s bust that myth by asking why one generation’s work needs supersede another’s? People between 55 and 75 continue to work for personal fulfillment and financial gain. While there is opportunity to retire, there is no rule that says you have to.
  2. She can’t use a Google doc. Shouldn’t that be a requirement? As hard as it is to understand some days, our lives aren’t all about IT savvy. And if a Boomer needs to use a Google doc–in fact, if everyone does, then make it a requirement, and teach everyone. Don’t equate tech savvy with museum or heritage organization savvy unless you’re hiring for IT.
  3. She couldn’t even remember the phone code. Maybe she’s got Alzheimers. All of our heads are clogged with too many numbers and passwords. Further, it’s a fact that over time, a full mind impacts short term memory like remembering a number or password. It’s ageist to assume that not being able to remember one of the gazillion numbers or codes the modern workplace requires is a symptom of a serious disease associated with aging.
  4. If we’re going to hire, I’d rather have someone younger who’ll have more energy.  Every life chapter comes with issues, and being under-40 may mean there are other drains on a person’s time–children, training for a marathon, finding a partner, getting married–that a later-in-life employee will have passed through. Energy and focus are individual characteristics. If you hire for passion and energy, you’ll get it regardless of age. And P.S., according to the AARP, not getting hired is the most common type of age discrimination.

What if you are an older employee:

  1. There’s a law that protects you: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act. While it differs from state to state, and it applies only to workplaces with more than 20 employees, it prohibits age discrimination in decisions about hiring, firing, layoffs, pay, benefits, promotions, demotions, performance reviews or any other condition of employment.
  2. Don’t act old: I mean that in the kindest way. Don’t come to work and act as though you wish you were home in your La-Z-Boy. (Actually, that’s true for everyone, but it fulfills every stereotype when someone over 55 does it.) Continue learning, read widely, engage, engage, engage. You and everyone around you will be better for it.
  3. Don’t use your past experience as the reason not to try something new. If you’re over 55, how many times have you felt younger colleagues eye-roll when you launch into a story about the time your museum tried a variation of the thing your Millennial co-worker just suggested. The operative word here is “try.” Ask the questions that you wish someone had asked the last time this particular program, exhibit, or idea was launched, and then go with it. Listen, participate. Ask more questions and use the teachable moment to its best advantage.
  4. Be humble, and steer away from age-centered comments. Don’t try to bridge the age-gap by talking about your 30-year old niece. Your colleagues don’t need to know they remind you of much younger relatives or children.
  5. Be wise, not a know it all. With age comes the ability to synthesize. The more information you have in your brain, the more you can detect patterns. Be the person who (gently) helps co-workers see the big picture.

So for those of you who aren’t Boomers, the next time you’re feeling the need to eye roll in a meeting as that guy drones on or that older woman dithers, remember, age is egalitarian. Unless you die young, some day you’ll find yourself the oldest person in the room. So grow some empathy, and learn to work with everyone.

Joan Baldwin

8 Comments on “Bias, Ageism & the Museum Workplace”

  1. Michelle Zupan says:

    So, I’m concerned that in this piece you place all of the “fix” on the Boomers. Why not place some of the repair work onto the Millenials? Millenials need to acknowledge that not everyone has had the same life experiences (or lack thereof) that they have had, not everyone has had the financial support from mummy and dad that they have or had (see NPR story 7/9), not everyone’s work/school careers have required them to learn x, y, or z skills, and that maybe (PROBABLY) if they stop with the snark and the ageism they just MIGHT (WILL) learn something from their elders. When I was a 20 something in museums, low these many years ago, I was responsible for managing a number of retiree-age volunteers. I used patience to teach them the computer database quirks, I always reassured them that they would have to work REALLY hard to crash the system, and I listened — A LOT. They ALL had fascinating stories and experiences. To this day (now I’m one of the older members on staff), I remember those people and how much I learned from them.
    On the flip side, I have been at my museum for 15 years in that time 6 much younger staff members have come and gone along with many many 20-something interns. They come in with plenty of “I know everything” attitude and a remarkable LACK of common sense and actual work skills. They may know how to code a computer game, but they can’t figure out an Excel spreadsheet to create a departmental budget. They might be able to find some obscure song on Spotify, but they can’t properly address an envelope to a donor — that is if they even have a CLUE that they need to send a thank you letter!. I stayed at work last night for 2 extra hours while two AC units were repaired — not the first, fifteenth, of fiftieth time I’ve stayed late without pay. Did ANY of the Millenials, say, “hey, I’ll stay this time since you always stay.” Nope. Not a one. They are the first ones out the door at 5pm and WHINE if they do need to stay later. There is often a lack of a worth ethic in the Millenials, not all of them, but 80% of the ones I’ve worked with must be TRAINED to work.
    So, it seems to me that the fix for ageism needs to come from both sides.

    • L says:

      This is not a good way to start dialogue – it seems like you only want a space to rail against your younger coworkers. I think you’ve missed the point completely.

      • L–Perhaps, although this definitely wasn’t aimed at Boomers: “So for those of you who aren’t Boomers, the next time you’re feeling the need to eye roll in a meeting as that guy drones on or that older woman dithers, remember, age is egalitarian. Unless you die young, some day you’ll find yourself the oldest person in the room. So grow some empathy, and learn to work with everyone.”

    • Michelle, your comment frustrates me. You come across as pretty mad.

      I’m a millennial, and I can only speak for myself and my experience working with tons of Boomers at my current museum position of 4 years. My frustration with the Boomers I work with stems from blatant racism, sexism, discrimination, and socio-cultural ignorance that we witness from them day-to-day. I have coworkers who, yes, can use Excel much better than I can, but they also have little respect for service industry workers (read: little to no tips) and struggle to respectfully interact with anyone whose first language isn’t English. I have no issue with their age, it’s their behavior. My theory is that many millennials have less patience with Boomers because we are struggling to not take it personally when we see the world that has been left for us and Gen Z.

      As to your second to last point,
      Millennials have been raised in a world that would take advantage of them at every step, and we are learning that if we’re hired for a 9-5pm job, we are under no social or legal obligation to stay late. We prioritize our personal time because it makes us healthier, happier, and less likely to professionally and mentally burn out. Companies take advantage of employees, especially younger employees, who don’t have families to go home to. In the wise words of Kasey Grier, “If your museum hires you on for 29 hours, give them 29 great hours. Don’t give them 59 great hours, that’s not helping anybody.” If you wait patiently for a millennial to offer up their unpaid time, you’ll be waiting forever. Ask or incentivize it, and you may get a different response. “Hey, could you stay late to keep an eye on the AC work? You can come in a few hours late tomorrow to make up for it.” Bought, sold, done.

      Now, I am a late-gen millennial (1991) that also hires other millennial and Gen Z interns. They do struggle sometimes with logic/common sense. I chalk most of that up to being taught so many theoreticals and having very little real-world experience. It’s definitely frustrating! But interns are there to learn, so I have to suck it up and realize that it’s my job to teach them, to walk them through things I take for granted as common-sense tasks. They come from a digital world so when they struggle with things like addressing an envelope or writing a thank you letter, my first response is, “Google is your friend.” I remind them they have all of the world’s knowledge at their disposal and I expect them to utilize it before coming to me for help.

  2. Jenny T. says:

    A really important piece of the puzzle is missing from this story and these comments: Generation X. (Yes, I know we’re named in the intro, but then conspicuously absent.) It’s very much our role/and opportunity to be a bridge generation between the “don’t know-how to use a Google doc” and “don’t know how to write a thank you note” generations. We are both analog and digital (as are Xennials).

    And while we’re at it, can we stop assuming someone in their 60s doesn’t know how to use tech and someone in their 20s doesn’t know how to write thank you notes? I’ve seen evidence to the contrary. One’s skillset is one’s own. You can both not “act old” or “act young”. Always be open to learning and always embrace you life experience at any age. We all have something to contribute.

  3. Jenny T. says:

    Apologies for typos! 😉

  4. Cheryl Stoeber-Goff says:

    I’m glad so many diverse ages and people have to be working together today….I consider it another part of my experience.

    I believe we’re at the time when lumping 20 years of people together and naming the group to define experience, education and ability, must come to a stop. I’ve had the pleasure and pain of working with and supervising co-workers who were much older and much younger than myself. Yes, it’s frustrating on all sides, but it can be worked out. Consider the truth behind the marketing of named groups:

    A Boomer born in 1946 has a life/work experience so very different than one born in 1956 and even less with one born in 1962. Heck, think of it, 10 years can make a huge difference in experience and conversation. GenXers have taken a beating through runaway debt and jobs going away. Well, guess what… when I graduated in the late 1970s, recession was king, downsizing was rampant, and long term jobs with health plans/pensions were dwindling and non-existent. Then Millennials born in early 1980s cannot be expected to relate well to one born in 2000. time for everyone to poke their head up out of the box and ask, “Does that group define me? Probably not.

    Finally, One of the best exercises of leadership I’ve learned is to show mutual respect to all, patience and develop a thick skin. Not every snarky comment needs to be blown out of proportion. Another part of my leadership picture is to communicate honestly with yourself and then you can communicate honestly with others. I’ve had 18-30 some-things at work who struggle with MS Office programs and no clue how much memory a 1500ppi jpg can take up… so I teach them. When I’ve asked about an element on the website that isn’t working, they show me. Do personalities clash… you bet…but we all try to let each do their job and help where needed.
    I try to help staff work together as peers with clearly defined rules of behavior worked out together. Is it perfect? No. Am I, as a supervisor, sometimes required to point out poor work or repeat policy? Yes. Do my coworkers have to point out that I may have given a conflicting assignment? Yes. So in all this we keep the goal in mind and don’t take dignity away from each other nor take all of it so seriously. And with all that, some folks are just ‘who they are’.

    I get it. Working with different generations is hard. So I remember those things said and done to me and my projects when I started in my 20s.. noting most of that behavior today would have people jailed. Each of us has to try to make it better or too much energy is wasted.

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