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I'm over 50 and my co-workers are ageist Add to ...

The question

I'm in my mid-50s, but working in a young industry (the Interwebs). I dress fairly well, in a Brooks Brothers sort of way, so I don't look like an old fart. But when people learn my actual age - I don't try to hide it, nor do I advertise - they are shocked.

I've been in meetings where other managers have slagged a person as being useless and associating said uselessness with their age. I actually overheard a thirtysomething moaning about a fiftysomething being placed on her team, "Really, what am I going to do? You can't teach someone that old anything!" And you know I can't let a comment like that go. I can keep up. My team's work is widely praised. But sometimes when colleagues learn my age they squint at me as if they're measuring me for a box. Suggestions for overcoming this ageism? I tried wearing a trucker hat sideways, but that hasn't helped.

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The answer

Unfortunately, the type of ageism you describe is a 21st-century epidemic.

Weird things happen when you turn 50 these days. For one thing, you're no longer part of TVs coveted 18-49 demographic. Suddenly you're a "Grey Power" person.

You know those commercials? Crazy rageaholic lady drives along honking horn, screaming out her window at other drivers. Inside the "Grey Power" corporate bunker, a spokesperson watches through the window, then turns to the camera, shaking his head sadly: "There are a lot of bad drivers out there. But you're not one of them. If you're 50 or over, with a good driving record, you're eligible for Grey Power."

But 50 is far too soon for talk of "grey power," IMHO. I'm a little younger than you - but in the same ballpark - and I still feel like a kid. A teenager! I'm just getting started in life!

It's a shame the whippersnappers in your office pooh-pooh quinquagenarians so callously. Punks! Duogenarians and trentagenarians can be so rude and callow, sometimes.

My advice to you: Don't listen to the haters, player. In 19th-century Russia, if her literature is to be believed, a man was considered to have entered his prime at age 50. And that's in the 19th century, when they didn't have spin classes or fruit smoothies and you were lucky even to live that long.

In fact, I think it's a rather ideal age to be. One has experience, wisdom. One is still in pretty good nick (unless one is me; then one is in horrible shape). One has put in one's Malcolm Gladwellian 10,000 hours and is comfortable and accomplished at what one does.

In any case, generalizations about age - e.g. "You can't teach someone that old anything" - are as useless and lazy, I think, as generalizations about race and gender.

Personally, I've never felt like these kinds of generalizations apply to me. I'm white, for example, but I can dance and I got soul. I'm a man, but I'm quite chatty and enjoy shopping for clothes. I'm a non-spring chicken, but still feel funky fresh.

Why should they apply to you? Age has nothing to do with who you are or what you're capable of - well, maybe if you're a ballerina. But not as a "knowledge worker."

Quite the opposite, I would say. Over the decades, I've noticed I've become less stupid. I'm still incredibly thick, but not nearly as dense, dimwitted and dumb as I was in my twenties and thirties.

(And one has only to reach back to the most recent Academy Awards ceremonies, hosted by Lames Franco and Yawn Hathaway, to realize: "Youth isn't everything.")

Vis-à-vis the above-cited can't-teach-old-dog-new-tricks crack by your jejune co-worker, you said in your question, "I can't let a comment like that go." But you didn't specify what kind of retort or arch eyebrow-work you employed in response.

I think you shouldn't be too subtle or defensive or mince words too much. It's up to you, I would say, to lead the charge in changing the ageist culture in your office.

Zing these little baby-faced upstarts back. Let them have it, right between the eyes.

For instance: "Just the type of ignorant comment I'd expect from someone still wet behind the ears. Where'd you learn that? Facebook?"

Or: "You know, Robert E. Lee said something similar before the Siege of Petersburg. Oh, wait. I forgot. You're in your 30s. You probably have no idea what I'm talking about."

Own it. Educate them. Show them the knife may be old but it's still got edge. Do not go gentle into that twilight. Show them your "grey power." You're a lion in winter. Let them hear you roar!

Enough metaphors. If you give as good as you get, you may even find these immature "Interwebbers" in your office will start to respect your authority, well-earned wisdom, and salt-and-peppery gravitas.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change, Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad and Damage Control, the book.

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