The second annual Chicago Style conference, held from May 6 to May 9 at the city’s Ace Hotel, kicked off with a panel of industry veterans tackling something that will affect all professionals at some point in their career: aging.
Presented in collaboration with The Sisterhood Project, an initiative dedicated to helping women in hospitality advance their careers, the panel was moderated by Lynn House, a Chicago-based national brand educator for Heaven Hill Brands headquartered in Bardstown, Kentucky, and featured Kate Gerwin, the creative director at Front & Cooper in Santa Cruz, California, and Tracey Ramsey, a bartender at Chicago’s Lost Lake. From defining ageism to exploring strategies to combat the problem in the workplace, the Ageism in Hospitality discussion explored a topic that affects every beverage professional, regardless of age.
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While our culture today seems to fear aging for the most part and to avoid talking about it as a result, House—a grandmother of three who was once told by a colleague to stop posting about her grandchildren on Facebook because people might figure out her age—said aging is worth acknowledging and confronting head-on because it affects everyone. “We’re all going to get old,” she said. “This is something—no matter your age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or pronoun identification—that you’re going to eventually face in this industry.”
While worries about long-term mental and physical health, access to health benefits, job security, and discrimination make aging particularly challenging in the labor-intensive and youth-oriented hospitality world, ageism doesn’t just affect older hospitality workers.
Citing a recent employment ad calling for a bartender described as “young, green, and enthusiastic,” the moderator and panelists discussed how such a job description—which is actually illegal for establishments with more than 20 employees to specify, per the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967—dismisses the value of both younger and older workers. Not only is it discriminatory but it discounts the value an older employee might bring while also hinting at less than stellar working conditions, like low pay and long hours.
Build Inclusive Workspaces
Gerwin admitted that in her younger days, she didn’t think about the big picture and often marginalized older workers, both with her hiring practices and in organizing staff activities centered on late nights and drinking. “Now I realize diversity builds the best team,” she said, noting that she works to create an inclusive environment—“and that’s not just race and gender but also age.”
Both she and Ramsey, who is not a big drinker and who said she often felt excluded from staff activities that involved barhopping, recommended that workplaces offer on-site team building and staff educational opportunities. It’s also helpful, they said, to acknowledge that those with families or in other stages in their lives might need to leave work early but still want to feel included and valued.
Being aware of a bar’s culture—“from the verbiage you’re using when hiring, to the activities you’re doing with staff, to who’s up for an opportunity,” said Gerwin—is something that can help any leader create a better working environment for employees of all ages.
There are also steps that individual industry professionals can take to better protect themselves against ageism. According to Gerwin, many older bartenders become complacent and stop participating in events and availing themselves of learning opportunities. “You can’t get mad [if] you’re not included when you’re not actively contributing to your own education,” she said. “You have to be part of the learning process. You have to actively be part of this community and of continuing your education.” She recommended looking for younger mentors to help freshen up skills, while Ramsey suggested reading and participating in seminars to “keep yourself current.”
House said that it’s important to acknowledge physical limitations that come with aging. Being open to pursuing new career paths, whether that’s bar ownership or brand or distributor work, can help a beverage industry professional pivot over time. “Keep yourself in a space of learning, not only about your industry but about your rights,” she said. “Be an advocate and ally for what is right in your workplace. I come from a family of teachers, and I was taught [that] the day you stop learning is the day you die. Education is an investment in yourself, no matter how old you are.”
Laura Scholz, a writer and editor based in Atlanta, has covered food, spirits, wellness, and travel for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Atlantan, Eater Atlanta, Liquor.com, Tales of the Cocktail, VinePair, and other publications. She is currently the fitness editor of Atlanta magazine. Follow her on Instagram @lbscholz.