When I began to go gray in my twenties – just a few strands at my college graduation – I was amused. No one else had a skunk streak before thirty. Even before the white streak people thought I was older than I was, much to my delight when it came to buying bottles of cheap vodka in college. It was when I entered the work world, though, that I found being mistaken for older was a great help indeed.
Whether at work or in the wider world, age is a marker of what we think we know about a person. White hair and wrinkles? Experience, knowledge, depth – but also rigidity (of body and mind) and outdated ideas. Glossy hair and fresh cheeks? Energy, enthusiasm, technological savvy – but also a lack of real world experience. Are those assumptions fair or true? Should they matter? Sometimes, but we’d be fools to rely on them.
Just as with booze-buying before age twenty-one, assuming what a person is or knows based on their age is nothing but trouble. There are two major mistakes we make here: either we assume someone’s age makes them better able to do a job than they are actually capable of doing, or we assume that because of their age they aren’t able to do things at which they are actually quite expert. The assumption may be that a young person is too young or an older person is too old, but in either case we may attribute characteristics, skills, and weaknesses to people that are not their own. I know that when I was younger I benefited again and again from the assumption that I was older than I was, and that I had learned things I didn’t yet know. My motto back then was fake it till you make it.
As my age catches up to my hair (I know there are other forty four year olds out there with gray hair, but in most gatherings I find I am still often the only forty-something showing her age) I wonder whether there is a tipping point. At what age does seeming older become a liability? I tend to think of the middle stage of one’s career, maybe thirty to sixty or so, as a kind of ageless time, where people can be just about anything: career switchers, new parents, old hands, grandparents, graduate students, widows, triathletes, survivors of cancer and cheaters of death. But if people assume you are close to those margins – the early thirties, the late fifties, all the assumptions about age creep in. And if you are in your twenties or sixties and beyond? People are going to make assumptions about who you are and what you can do based on how many years you’ve been on the planet.
At a meeting recently a woman I didn’t know came up to me. “So you’re Lisa Cobb! I’ve wanted to meet you,” she said. I had no idea why she’d want to meet me, but I smiled and shook her hand. “I’ve been following your work for thirty years! It’s great to finally put a face with the name.” Thirty years? I’m sure my face fell, but I hiked the smile back up and said “Oh, thank you!” What should I have said? “No, you’ve got it all wrong – thirty years ago I was sitting in algebra class reading Judy Bloom novels under the desk.” This lovely woman had literally taken me for my mother, in whose professional footsteps I follow.
Assumptions about age may be foolish, but it would be wrong to say age is meaningless. It isn’t. Years shape us and make us and break us, but we are changed in wildly unexpected and uneven ways. Are you stronger or weaker than you were ten years ago? I’m both – it depends upon what you want me to lift. The only way to know whether someone can do a job, I’ve found, is to look for the evidence – give the writing test, ask the uncomfortable questions, read the report, listen carefully to the answers. Just ignore the gray hair.