He first used the phrase during my interview at his startup firm: “I think you're the older, more experienced, mature adult we're looking for.”
I admit I smiled at the thirtysomething company owner when he labeled me as such, though I likely raised an eyebrow or two. After all — it was an interview and I was excited about the job and the opportunity to expand my copywriting skills.
I may have even smiled the second or third time he used the phrase after I was hired, and in front of the twentysomethings employed at his firm.
But I wasn't smiling by the 40th time.
I stopped smiling because the label not only felt like a veiled criticism, but it set a bad precedent for judgment and agism among my colleagues.
“Can you understand this? Can you get this through your head?” a 27-year-old coworker asked me a few weeks into my employment, while explaining a work procedure. I thought he was kidding. He wasn't.
It’s All Relative
In 17th century England, life expectancy was about 35. Compared to then, I’m pretty ancient at 49. But life expectancy for females in the United States is now 82. That means I've only lived about 59 percent of my life so far – and I have 41 percent more to go.
I certainly don't feel old.
And yet, it wasn't only in the workplace that others have perceived me as “mature.”
When I was single, my girlfriends and I often saw men our age dating women half our age. When I decided to try the December/May relationship myself, my young foreign lover told me he could not be seen in public with "a woman of your years." Another time he asked what was wrong with my skin.
“Your skin is dry. It's wrinkly.”
I chalked that one up to a language barrier. But I decided to stick with men my own age after that.
5 Tips To Battle 'Age Condescension'
I have five tips for battling the condescension of others in our "advancing years," based on my growing experience in this area. My advice draws on what is often a strength for those of us in our Adult, Part 2 phase of life: knowing who we are and what we want.
1. Be courageous in expressing your true feelings. When my 27-year-old colleague asked if I could "get it through my head," I turned to him and asked: “Why would you think I wouldn't understand what you're saying?”
When he looked confused, it hit me. He really believed I couldn't "get" what he was saying! He thought my age precluded me from understanding something "new."
It was the first time someone had treated me as if I was incapable of understanding a thing, and I wanted to look around and ask, DeNiro-like: “Are you talking to ME?” By directly engaging him, and expressing my surprise at my colleague's assumption, I was able to politely shine light on his judgment. It also allowed me to not take that insult home and let it stew in my head overnight.
2. Know your boundaries. It isn't that I can't work in certain conditions (such as 10-to-12 hour days), it's that I choose not to do so. There are too many wonderful things to experience in the world, and I feel a consciously-balanced life is necessary to be able to enjoy them all.
What was valued in my previous employment wasn't really the maturity and experience I offered, despite the owner's stated desire for such. What was valued was the choice to sit in chairs before computer screens for 10-to-12 hours per day. I wasn't willing to do so, and I knew it.
3. Be true to your boundaries. While it is important for me to stay up-to-date on my career skills, I didn't need to sacrifice my comfort or self esteem in order to do so. I've found the best part of being a woman of my years is that I've mastered the art of saying "no." If something doesn't work for me, with age has come the skill to identify when a boundary has been crossed and the experience to handle it accordingly. In my case, I made the decision to leave the company when I recognized we were not a good fit.
4. Surround yourself with friends. Your friends are the people, lovers and co-workers who like you for who, what and how old you are. Your friends can be seen with you in public and probably don't wish your skin looked a little less "old." We've all read the studies of the longest-living people on our planet, and they generally maintain very active social lives, including playing sports and games and dining with company. If you are surrounded by people who reinforce the positive aspects of your life, you will find it easier to feel self-expressed and measure your boundaries against your peers.
5. Be a beacon of grace. One of the many joys of being an "older, more experienced, mature adult" is that we are usually pretty balanced by now and far less interested in the distractions that get in the way of enjoying life. Although some feel the clock speeds up as we age, I prefer to think that it just feels that way because we are more focused on the good stuff. You know, family, friends, laughter, and the ability to make clear decisions on how we enjoy spending our time.