How old are you? Over the past few years I’ve been asked this a lot.
It never used to come up but now it happens several times a week. In some cultures it’s routine to ask perfect strangers direct, personal questions like “how old are you?” or “what’s your salary?” Yet without realizing it I’d grown accustomed to the American cultural norm where these questions can be considered bad taste… and I’m starting to see why. They can be used by predatory people in malicious ways, especially if you’re a manager, entrepreneur or investor.
Some people ask these questions in perfectly innocent, well intentioned ways. Let’s put them aside for a moment. I’d like to talk about the others – the predators. They aren’t really asking how many times the earth has revolved around the sun since I was born, they’re asking whether or not they should take me seriously. They want to know if they can discount me – and my ideas – based on my age. Ironically, when age is the heuristic those inclined to dismiss you offhand can find justification in almost any answer they get. That’s why they ask.
Here’s the catch-22: if you’re younger than, say, 36 years old, you can be dismissed as inexperienced. Naive. Too big for your britches. I don’t care if you’re Little Bo Peep or Mark Zuckerberg, fault can be found in anyone younger than 36 and attributed to their lack of seasoning. Meanwhile if you’re older than, say, 50 years old, you can be dismissed as outdated. Close minded. Out of touch. Too crusty and set in your ways to be anything but a pain in the neck.
The sweet spot, it seems (in my completely unsupported, spur of the moment analysis) is between 36 years old and 49. These are the “right answer” years. The golden time for careers. You’re old enough to have unimpeachable seasoning, but not so old that you’re easily dismissed as a dinosaur. During these 14 or so magical years you have natural antibodies against all the snotty, lazy, condescending or otherwise ill disposed people who want to pooh pooh you and your ideas for no substantive reason whatsoever. This period is only around 16% of your life so be sure not to squander it. Make these years count.
For you caught somewhere during the other 84% of your life: take substantive solace in the fact that age generally means nothing. Those who want to use age as a weapon are a toxic mixture of stupid, lazy and arrogant. Let them dismiss you if they must. They’re grasping at straws. Besides, you and the promise of your ideas probably terrify them anyway (which is why they’re so desperate to marginalize you).
For the younger set: keep in mind that some people with “twenty years of experience” really just stretched two years of experience over a twenty year span. It’s not how long you’ve been on the job but how well you do it that matters. We’ve all had extremely experienced barbers/stylists butcher our hair. Speaking of hair, the jury is still out on whether or not you should buy some coloring to add a few strategic gray hairs. A friend of mine wears his glasses to look older, even when he doesn’t need them. I suppose it could help but it strikes me as a bit disingenuous. No judgement either way.
For the older group: being close minded and out of touch is neither inevitable, nor is it the exclusive domain of people who’ve been around longer. We’ve all met inflexible, crusty people in their early twenties – a lot of times they’re giving us parking tickets or telling us our flight’s been canceled. Hair-wise (if you still have it) I remain neutral as to whether you should cover up the gray. No position on glasses either.
For all of us… Robert Frost said “a diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman’s birthday but never remembers her age.” Let us all, man and woman alike, be diplomats. Forget about age. It’s a deeply flawed heuristic for the weak minded. A wine’s vintage only matters to the extent of its taste… let’s keep ours as good as it can be.
Author: Thomas Thurston