I started a new job not long ago, so I had a meeting about getting started with their retirement investment program. Age is relevant (obviously) so I mentioned mine to the investment advisor. Imagine my surprise when he exclaimed “Oh! I think you’re the oldest person working there.”
Reader, let me pause so that can sink in. It stung.
realized was told that I’m old at my company, I started to notice other ways that I’m old professionally. I have a peer group of kickass women that I meet with once or twice a month. Now that I think about it, I probably have at least ten years on them. I haven’t put a resume together in years, but if I did, it would go on for pages. You have to really scroll to get to the bottom of my LinkedIn profile. I’ve had two entirely separate careers back to back and that doesn’t happen overnight.
I used to have lots of colleagues who were in roughly the same age group as me. I was older, but the music I listened to in college was the music they listened to in high school. Now I have lots of colleagues who were not born yet when I was in college. I am literally older than some of their parents. This is the kind of thing that happens slowly and then all at once. I have complicated feelings about it.
A friend (nearing 50) told me recently that he actively tries to keep his age secret at work. He has a terrific job by any measure and that job has given him a good life. But there’s also a sense of “Should I have gotten farther by now? Is this the career that I planned on?” In other words, do his age and his career progression add up? He’s not sure, and I get that. I have good jobs with small companies, but I’m not a big shot. I’m not c-level accomplished. At this stage in my life, I understand that I probably won’t ever be. I’m usually at peace with the choices I’ve made but every time someone hears my age, they’re making calculations. They may respect what I do and how I’ve gotten here, or they may not. I can understand my friend’s instinct to keep quiet and avoid judgement. Getting old is hard enough without side-eye from the youngs.
On the other hand, when I was in my twenties, I didn’t work with a lot of women in their forties or fifties or sixties doing jobs that I would aspire to do. My first jobs were at big companies run largely by white men. If there were more women in my orbit at that time, what questions might I have asked? Would my expectations and aspirations have been any different? Now that I’m on the other end of the telescope, I think a lot about my role as an older professional person in a company with loads of young people. Does it matter to them that they know a woman with decades of work under her belt and a strong opinion and voice? It should, even if they don’t know it yet.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, I didn’t get hired just to let my job serve as a reflection of my evolving feelings about aging. This is work. I’m paid to bring the whole of my experience to bear in whatever way that I can. If I sit on things I learned twenty years ago because I’m embarrassed that they were twenty years ago, I’m failing to deliver on what I’m here to do. I wouldn’t be proud of that.
So, here’s the balance that I’m striking. I speak more loudly and clearly at work than I did even ten years ago. I don’t hesitate to give examples of what I’ve learned and what I know or think to be true, and I own the fact that I have 25 million years of work experience to back it up.
When I’m working with young people, I try to listen carefully and give the best advice I can. Sometimes by request, sometimes unsolicited. I’m very mindful of the fact that they’re at a launching point professionally, and the decisions they make now will have far reaching consequences. Do I sound like one of their parents? Probably. That’s how old I am.
But, if there’s a chatty question at work that’s just for fun — “What was your favorite TV show when you were a kid?” — I just keep quiet. It doesn’t bring me joy to explain how back in my day, we had only three channels and cartoons were exclusively a Saturday morning event. All that does is highlight the huge gulf that already separates me from many of the people that I work with, and believe me, the amount of grey in my hair is calling enough attention to this fact all on its own.