I remember it clearly. I was unemployed, and there was a job I wanted desperately. It matched my needs, meshed beautifully with my experience, and the pay was promising. Also, the guy I’d report to seemed affable and bright. But …
… I did sense a reticence during the several interviews I had before he offered me the job. Finally, the truth came out: “You’re about three years older than me,” he said. I had just turned 35; he was 32.
I thought nothing of it at the time but, of course, should have considered that confession a flaming red flag of danger. Sadly, I did not.
In my mind, we were both relatively young, and each of us was knowledgeable and seasoned. As he appeared to have a direct line to the boss, I assumed he felt infinitely secure, so I was prepared to put my faith in his judgment. Though I never gave our modest age difference more than a glancing thought, he apparently brooded on it.
Result: I spent nearly three years in a kind of cushioned purgatory, a situation in which I absolutely could not excel. Dealing with this man was like an endless exercise in treading on eggs. I felt thoroughly boxed in—and miserable. But I guess I learned an important lesson: Age discrimination may be a societal no-no, but it does exist, and if you even get a hint of it, you should run like hell!
Years later, as a full-time freelance in a firm that accorded me an office, I found myself dealing with staff people my grown daughter’s age and often even younger.
Amazingly, the profound age difference had almost no impact. The people I reported to dealt with me the way I prefer being treated—as a professional. They worked with me agreeably and without discomfort, perhaps because they knew what I produced would probably make them look good. My coworkers were mostly a delight.
Yes, there were some exceptions—not among the women on the staff, only the men. And that continued to puzzle me.
I was no threat, after all. I had no wish to usurp their authority or—God forbid—take their jobs. I was not compelled to even figuratively punch a clock, deal with personnel issues or attend staff meetings. I delighted in being allowed to come and go as I wished, as long as I got my contracted work done.
But there could be no doubt: the men on the staff were always a bit wary. I was careful not to flaunt my years of experience; I hoped my work would be evidence enough.
Perhaps the guys were concerned that, at some point, I might try to usurp their authority or challenge their judgment. I could never be certain. But, day to day, we actually did get along, despite their obvious reticence.
Meanwhile, I continue to work today—mostly electronically—with people of all ages, all presumably younger. Maybe it’s best that they don’t have to confront me in person, that the fact of our age difference is not vividly apparent.
Still, I know I must be careful. I’ve learned not to say, “I remember when …” or “It used to be …” I still have a brain that functions ably, and though I don’t flaunt my experience, I know it’ll stand me in good stead as long as I stay mentally fit.
I remember, at one point early in my freelance career, a marketing honcho at a company I did projects for suggested I meet with a colleague in another department. I saw that the message he attached to my résumé read: “I think you should talk to this gentleman.”
“Gentleman?” What was that about? It took awhile for the meaning to sink in, for in this context that word said only one thing: old.
It has haunted me ever since, nudging me to stay vigilant, always on guard. Age may be inevitable, but so are attitudes toward it—no matter how skillfully they may be suppressed.