When They Ask "How Old Are You?" Tell Them To Read This

Age makes for loaded questions at work. Meredith Fineman has some answers.

So last week I was at a talk featuring Nilofer Merchant and Ellen McGirt about women, invisibility, uniqueness, and onlyness. As one of two men in attendance, I felt plenty unique.

And I was lucky enough to meet a nonchalant and badass young entrepreneur by the name of Meredith Fineman, who struck me as wise beyond her years (one reason: she runs her own PR company). Reading her recent post at HBR, it's startling to consider how much meaning we load into years—and how stupidly sexist and ageist fixating on them is.

Maybe our mental foibles are understandable. "Age," Fineman explains in HBR, "is messy": olds cite a bias while youngs, for all our culture's youth-worshipping, aren't getting hired. Fineman notes hthat unemployment for people between 18 and 29 rose to 12.1 percent in December, up nearly a percentage point from the year before. And, as she says, we're not having a conversation about age, though we're (finally) in dialogue about location and gender bias.

So when Fineman is asked the most loaded and innocent of questions—how old are you?—she has reason to consider the motivation:

When I am asked that question, it's usually to gauge if, at recently 26, the fact that I've had my own company, FinePoint Digital PR, for nearly two years is admirable, suspect, or something else. When asked, I often respond with, "You should never ask a lady her age." Where did I get that? Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, apparently in the 19th century while my other business was churning butter.

As Fineman notes, discussions about age engender discussions about gender. So let's discuss.

When is (the perception of) age a (perceived) good thing?

In some industries, age is equated with qualifications. Fineman talks about how male friends complain of gray hairs; she tells them that if they're in traditional (read: paleolithic) fields like insurance or finance, it could help them, while gray hair is more complicated for women.

Younger industries privilege precocity

If you're in tech,you're privy to the youth-worshipping: 30s (or 7) Under 30s, flux generations, and other assorted wunderkinder give you countless reasons to measure your age with insecurity. TED Talks have a teen division. We're so youthful and carefree that only on Fridays are we fancy. And if you're leading your company, your face—whether doe-eyed and smile-lined—brings even more judgement.

An entrepreneur is often the face, literally, of her company. When that face doesn't match our expectations, it's easy to become nonplussed. A male client, with whom I had worked for months before meeting in person, began our first face-to-face meeting with the exclamation "You're so young!" I wasn't quite sure what to say, and mostly I felt belittled and furious. (Think how you'd feel if you sat down with a client who blurted out, "You're so old!" Exactly.)

What we talk about when we talk about age.

Consciously or not, we use age as heuristic for ability and stature and status. It's been happening for awhile: even the Athenians worshipped Hebe, the personification of youth. While it's only human to evaluate people by their ages, it's also dehumanizing.

So when they ask "so how old are you," you can ask back, "is this ageist?"

"Just How Old Are You?"

[Image: Flickr user Mohammed Alnaser]

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