Last week I was talking to a group of twenty-something women lawyers who had just started work in the City of London. One told me she was fed up with being asked how old she was by middle-aged colleagues and clients. The others agreed: they got asked their age all the time and they hated it. They saw it as a way of undermining their authority and putting them in their place.
When I got into the office the next day I did a survey of the youngest people I could find and asked if the same thing happened to them. Almost all said yes – not just the women, but the men, too.
How grim, I thought. Here is another indignity borne by the crunch generation – they are locked out of the housing market, saddled with student debt, struggling to find a decent job, and when they finally land one, they get punished for being young.
Yet on closer inspection it is more complicated than that. My sample suggests there is a difference between how the sexes take the question.
To the women, it feels like sexism and ageism in a single shot. But to some of the pushier young men, the question is an opportunity to show off. To be able to say: I’m 23 – and look how much I’ve achieved already – is deeply gratifying.
Yet for both men and women, at some point in their late twenties and just before the appearance of the first wrinkle, the questions cease. By some unspoken agreement, everyone stops asking.
The only people in their thirties who still get asked have either been wildly successful (I know someone of 32 with a board position who gets asked her age a lot) or pregnant women, who are asked by other women anxious about their own dwindling fertility.
What is wrong – and most peculiar – about all this is not that we ask the youngest workers how old they are. It is that we don’t ask anyone else.
With children, age is the first thing we want to know. Even the shyest child will always be ready to lisp out “I’m three-and-a-half”. Colleagues routinely ask the ages of my children – as well as the age of my elderly father. But they never ask how old I am.
In the years between about 28 and 65 – for the bulk of our life that we dedicate to work – it is considered too rude to ask. On LinkedIn people post all sorts of irrelevant information about themselves – including whether they possesses a “skill” called “cross-functional team leadership” – but they never state their age. Anyone wanting to know (and surely everyone does) has to work backwards from the date they left school or university.
Our coyness about age at work isn’t because we don’t think age is important. On the contrary: age continues to fascinate us. Whenever I interview anyone, I do not consider I’ve done the job properly unless I slip in how old they are. Someone’s age tells you something about their experience. It is a measuring stick to how well they are doing. There may be other, better, measuring sticks but the beauty of this one is that it is simple and can be applied to everyone. If nothing else, their age gives you a clue about their taste in pop music.
You could say that to be open about age would lead to more discrimination, though I can’t see how. As it is, it is not as if we are blind to age or treat older and younger workers the same. They look different; they are different. Refusing to reveal how old someone is makes discrimination worse as it means those who have invested in Botox or who have won the genetic lottery and are still trim and dark-haired do better than those who are grey and wrinkly.
Last week I told the young lawyers that in future when some older colleague asks them their age, they should smile and reply: “I’m 27. How old are you?”
The last time I was asked such a direct question was nearly a decade ago. I was lying in an ambulance and a strange man was bending over me, telling me that I had had an accident on my bike.
What’s your name, he asked. Who is the prime minister?
I answered these without difficulty. But then he said: how old are you? I didn’t have the first idea. After a lot of racking my brains, I said as if unearthing a fact of considerable yet obscure interest: I think I’m in my forties.
Now, bump on head long gone, I can say with confidence I am 54 and a half. It’s a perfectly good age to be. It isn’t how I feel inside (but that’s because age always feels contingent from within), but it does tell you something. At the very least, that I joined the workforce in easier times and I’m still here..
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