In many cultures around the world, youth is associated with energy and passion. Reflective and calm personality traits are associated with being older and wiser. We are comfortable with these stigmas; however, we are slightly less comfortable when someone flips the switch.
As a millennial Introvert, I’ve had both my age and quiet temperament brought up several times throughout my professional career — and rarely in positive ways. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to “speak up more.” While often well-intentioned, giving that sort of advice to an Introvert is like telling a depressed person to “just be happy.” There is no magic button that we can press to make us chatty — it’s more like a complex system of wires. Trying to change just one could cause the entire program to crash.
The comments about my quiet nature have made me not only hyper-aware of my introversion in the workplace, but also of my age. I work in marketing. I often find myself around young sales professionals full of the exuberance and passion that I lack. When you’re frequently told that you “don’t have enough experience” for a job but see people with even less experience getting promoted, you realize there’s something else at play.
I’m not a “high energy” person in the sense that I’m bouncing off the walls, throwing out ideas, and enthusiastically challenging the status quo. As an Introvert, I’m thoughtful and methodical. I do challenge ideas and passionately express opinions, but only after I’ve had time to process my thoughts and form quality conclusions internally.
Because I’m so different than many of my peers, I’ve often felt like I have to work harder to “prove” myself as capable. But just because I interpret my reality one way doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a universal truth. This article will look at how we view age and personality — primarily in the workplace — and answer the question: does age matter more when you’re an Introvert?
Ageism in the workplace
I’ve personally experienced ageism in relation to being young. However, ageism in the workplace primarily affects older adults. According to the Spherion Emerging Workforce Study, age impacts not only how employees view their own potential, but also how they perceive their coworkers’ and supervisors’ abilities. The study also revealed that millennials are more likely to judge others based on their age and more likely to agree that their age means more significant career opportunities.
Explaining the origin of ageism is complicated. However, it is largely based on perceived changes in personality among age groups. Some of these stereotypes are confirmed, and others are inaccurate. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, older adults are perceived to be more agreeable and report higher levels of agreeableness than young adults. However, older adults are also perceived to be more depressed, even though younger adults self-report much higher levels of depression.
Young adults may personally be unfulfilled in entry-level jobs, but they are perceived more positively than their older coworkers. So, age alone isn’t holding back millennial Introverts.
Personality discrimination in the workplace
While I’ve never really felt like my age was holding me back in my career, I bring it up in this article because it’s so frequently mentioned as an excuse when the actual issue is personality discrimination. It’s acceptable to say, “You don’t have enough years of experience,” rather than admit that you’re skeptical of hiring someone who is an Introvert.
There is a major anti-introversion stigma in many workplaces. According to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 29% of employers use psychological assessments as part of the hiring process. I joke about how I’ve never gotten any job that has a personality assessment as part of the interview process, but it’s true. And the reason is that I’m honest.
The issue with hiring based on personality is that you assume a preference for introversion or extraversion, for example, will make someone a better fit for a job. While there are some circumstances where this may be true at a fundamental level, there’s really no evidence that someone’s personality will predict how effective they will be at their job. To me, this is virtually making the same assumption based on someone’s religion, political views or country of origin (all of which are legally prohibited forms of discrimination).
Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan of using personality assessments at work as a way to better understand yourself and improve group dynamics. Unfortunately, they’re often misused as a decision-making tool by individuals who don’t accurately understand their purpose.
Does age matter more than personality at work?
Both age and personality discrimination come down to perception and societal stigmas. Consider two candidates applying for a mid-level management position:
- Sarah is soft-spoken and kind. She is in her late 30s and already has over 10 years of management experience in the same industry.
- James is loud and confident. He’s in his early 30s and comes from a different industry, but also has a few years of similar management experience.
Who you choose will likely have less to do with experience and more to do with the personality type you prefer and perceive as the best fit for the role. The hiring and promoting process at work is entirely subjective, but because subjectivity breeds discrimination, employees and candidates aren’t honestly told why they didn’t receive the job or promotion.
Essentially, age matters less than personality, but what matters the most is the culture of the company you work for. If you work for a company that recognizes individual strengths and encourages growth, you’re more likely to thrive regardless of age or personality.
Ending the stigma about introversion
I recently received a promotion at work and had an honest conversation with the CEO about what he viewed as my biggest challenges. He told me that one of the challenges is my being soft-spoken, not because it’s a weakness but because others often perceive it as a weakness. He also told me that he believed in my skills and ability to do a great job. It was refreshing to get honest feedback reinforcing what I already “felt” was true.
Being an Introvert can hold you back in your career, but it doesn’t have to. For every horrible boss or company that makes you feel out of place, there is another who will recognize your strengths and appreciate what you have to offer. Finding those opportunities is difficult. In the meantime, it’s important for Introverts to work towards ending the stigma about introversion in the workplace. A few easy ways to do this are by talking to your coworkers about introversion, clearing up misconceptions when they happen and sharing educational resources about personality.
We often look fondly on older adults who are still “young at heart” and express the same energy and passion they had in their youth. Quiet and thoughtful young people are the other side of the same coin. It’s time to recognize that they too have unique perspectives to offer. Experience is crucial for advancing in your career, but I would encourage Introverts to probe deeper if they find that they consistently receive that sort of feedback.
If you’re not getting what you need from your current job, consider jumping ship and moving to a more supportive company. Or consider freelance and work-from-home opportunities. As Introverts, it’s essential that we don’t sit back and accept an unfulfilling reality because that’s “just how things are.” (Is my millennial passion showing, yet?) It’s up to us to have honest conversations and work to end the stigmas about introversion in the workplace.