Age Doesn’t Matter, Ageism Does

Halfdan Hussey, co-founder and director of the Cinequest film festival, recently wrote a blog post that took the position, “Age Doesn’t Matter—In Work or in Life.” @halfdanhussey is correct, of course. Age only matters in the mindset of the individual or the perceptions of the people around him or her.

Having said that, I would add the caveat that, at any age, it’s important to understand one’s strengths and weaknesses and to work around one’s limitations, whether physical or mental.

By 2030 there will be 72.1 million older AmericansI have written a lot about the “silver tsunami,” the giant wave of Baby Boomers who are either sliding into retirement or being driven there by hiring managers and HR departments who discount older workers despite the obvious advantages of experience and depth of knowledge. They assume that only young people have high energy levels, good ideas, or creative breakthroughs or are willing to take a risk.

I know from my own life experience that this is nonsense. Here are two examples:

Ageism by Assumption

Assumption: At one company, a new Vice President of Marketing came on board to take over the department. He asked me, as one of his direct reports, to have lunch with him and give him the “lay of the land” on the company and the marketing team. I was happy to have this opportunity to position the team (and me) in a positive light, but I was also very cautious about what I said to this unknown but clearly volatile individual.

At one point during the lunch, he commented with passion that he thought people over the age of 50 no longer had the juice that was needed to work in high tech. They lacked the willingness to keep up with new things, he said. They just “didn’t get it.” Funny thing, though, I had just turned 50. So, I smiled in the face of his assumed ageism and let him rant and then changed the subject.

We worked together quite well for several years because he never guessed my real age and thus could not color our working relationship with his deeply held—but incorrect—assumption. Now, more than 15 years later, he is well over 50 himself and still working hard. Clearly his assumed ageism did not apply to him.

The Old Leading the Young

Experience: Back in 2007, I was working a trade show in Las Vegas and, as usual, I planned a trip to the New York New York hotel and casino to ride the roller coaster that was then called the Manhattan Express.  I tried to round up some co-workers to go with me but most of them turned green at the thought and claimed prior commitments. (It’s not that big or that scary. Really.) Finally, three of our 20-something young men signed on.

Manhattan Express, roller coaster, New York New York, Las Vegas

The Manhattan Express

I showed them how to take the tram from Mandalay Bay to Excalibur and then led them down to street level, around the corner, up the escalator and onto the pedestrian bridge over Tropicana Avenue. At this point they were begging me to slow down. I was in my fifties, they in their twenties, and they couldn’t keep up with me. So much for low energy levels.

Oh, when we got to the coaster, none of the three would ride in the front car with me. So, I took a front-car seat along with an airman from Davis Monthan AFB and they sat safely behind me. So much for risk taking.

The Dirty Little Secret

We all know the old saw about what “assume” means and this is a case where it is really true. Assumptions about older workers have driven many dedicated, experienced people out of the work force, particularly in high tech, where age discrimination is a dirty little secret—and not just in Silicon Valley. Along with them has gone an encyclopedic depth of knowledge about the industry in general along with the various technologies within it.

I have seen mistakes made unnecessarily because an older, wiser individual was not present to guide and mentor young team members. Those mistakes are usually time-consuming and expensive. They can affect the company’s bottom line adversely. They can even get someone fired when a quiet word of wisdom would have kept the whole situation from happening.

Countering Ageism

In prior years I have encouraged job seekers to counter ageism by altering their appearance. This is easier with women because we color our hair for personal as well as professional reasons. I kept my hair darker when I worked in high tech but stopped when I retired. Now I’m going gray naturally. Men have a harder time, however. They see hair color as feminine, something that doesn’t apply to them, even though it would take 10 years off their age.

Getting them to shave off a beard, which is often whiter than their hair, is easier. Randy Adams shaved off his gray hair altogether to land a CEO’s job at SocialDial. A clean head looks younger than a gray one. Botox and cosmetic surgery are newly hip.

Still, I have had more than one man look at me in astonishment and said, “But this is who I am.” Yes, but if what you are is unemployed because of assumptions about your age, then the smart thing to do is get over yourself and look younger.

What Smart People See

Age doesn’t matter. Unless you want it to. Unless you allow it to limit yourself or others. Smart people see the talent and abilities, not the age. Ageism does matter, however because it can limit your opportunities. And if, like Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley hotshots, you think that 20 somethings have it more together, just watch @HBO’s series Silicon Valley.

Granted, it’s a comedy, but it’s not that far off the mark. I laugh as I watch these young men struggle to figure things out and learn what others assume they already know, to make mistakes and bumble around, to dither and stumble and absorb bad advice from equally young colleagues.

But that’s the nature of youth.