A few years ago I was featured in Forbes Magazine for being a “Savvy Shopper.” As you can imagine I was pretty darn excited about it, so I told the world, including my boss, that I was going to be featured in this prestigious magazine. When the magazine came out I rushed to the store in an effort to see a large photo of myself gracing the pages; it was pretty cool. The next day, my boss, who had been traveling when it came out, brought in a copy she had purchased and started showing people at work. I was thrilled that she was bragging about me, but little did I know that our once positive relationship would soon fall off a cliff.
Apparently she hadn’t read the article before showing it to people, and shortly after she showed a few people I heard a loud angry/confused yell from her office: “WAIT!? You’re only 23 years old!?”
I slowly walked into her office and told her yes. She then informed me, in a less than pleasant tone, that she had thought I was 28 or 29 and that is why she made me a manager and paid me as she did. I caught her off guard by asking if my work had held up to her expectations, to which she hesitantly answered yes. To me it seemed like the end of the issue, but her learning my real age changed everything and I have pinpointed that moment as the turning point in our relationship. From that point on things were just different.
Since this occurrence I have closely guarded my age and I believe doing so has opened many doors that would have otherwise been closed (title, salary, and responsibility); so in an effort to help my fellow youth in the workforce, the following reasons are why people think I am at least 5 years older than I actually am:
- When someone asks how old are you I dodge the question with responses like “how old are you?” or “I’m ageless” (with a big smile).
- I know the pop culture (and major news stories) for the generations older than me and I reference them around those who will get it. Today I dropped both a Kelly Kapowski reference and a reference to the California real estate bust of the early 90’s.
- I look the part; clean-shaven, nice clothes, etc. You’d be surprised how much your appearance skews what people think of you.
- I keep my mouth shut. If I don’t know what a group is talking about I do everything in my power to blend in. Then, after the meeting, I will discuss what I didn’t understand with coworkers. Then I spend time trying to learn even more about it so I’m never in that situation again.
- I’m married and I have a kid. I am very aware that the fact I got married young and I have a child makes people think I am older than I am.
- I have a receding hairline. Yes, it’s funny to read but I’ve been able to use it as a point of self-deprecating humor around the office.
These things have really helped in providing age ambiguity for me, and maybe you could use them to help you get the most out of your young career; though I wouldn’t go get married or have a kid solely for this reason.
Also, please note the following most important factor; and without it everything else becomes moot: DO GOOD WORK. If you don’t back up all these things with good work, then everyone will see right through you and no image can help you win the benefit of the doubt. Also you need to have knowledge that by enacting these tips you have permanently traded in your “I’m young and inexperienced” card; you can no longer use that as an excuse. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help, but it’s all about the way you ask for it.
I understand that many people may read this as if I’m encouraging people to lie; I’m not. I’m encouraging people to know their legal right to not disclose their age. Ageism goes both ways and I’ve seen it in a few different workplaces. People judge how much to pay you based on your age and how much they made at that age, they judge when to promote you based on your age, they judge when to give you an office or a window based on your age, and they judge whether or not to hire you based on your age. Yes, this is probably all illegal age discrimination, but unfortunately it is the reality of the world we live in.
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