My first interview with my boss occurred by telephone. The second one, however, was in person. I dressed in my favorite wrap dress, black tights and knee-high boots, striving for an timelessly chic appearance. During the interview, Adam, who’s 35, turned his laptop toward me to show me the current organization chart for his department. I saw … a bunch of tiny blurs. But I didn’t want to put on my readers and reveal that I can’t see up close without them, so I nodded.
“But this is the plan for the department in 18 months,” he continued, clicking on his laptop again and turning it toward me. I saw … more tiny blurs? I had no idea where my name was on the chart. So, I nodded again, sagely, and we continued on. I didn’t want to look old, or seem old, to a potential boss. I was 56 and looking for a new job, competing against copywriters who were decades younger than me.
I’m good with being middle-aged — most of the time
I’m not thrilled about the endless pull of gravity, but most of the time I don’t mind being 56. I’m healthy. I have a teen and tween who are thriving despite the last years of COVID, great friends, and a man I love and who makes me laugh almost every day. I do mind being 56 at work (I got the job!), where I’m the oldest person in my department by six years. John is 50; Ben and Sara are in their mid-40s. The rest of the team is made up of 20- and 30-somethings. That’s concerning. Poised between relevance and retirement, I strive to keep up with the latest social media trends, so I don’t look, or act, hopelessly out of it. I put on makeup before our frequent Teams Meetings video calls and adjust the lighting, so I don’t look quite so tired. When I have a tech issue, I worry it’s because I’m a dinosaur, not because my laptop has a malfunctioning microphone (true story).
But there are advantages too. I’m not as ambitious, which means I build relationships not because I’m trying to get somewhere but because I thrive on connection. I am far more efficient and able to produce quality work in less time than before. And when I make a mistake, I’m able to shrug it off, instead of spending days worrying about it. With age comes some wisdom.
Strategies to appear more relevant at work
I can’t change my age, but I don’t want it to hurt my career. So, I use the following five strategies. Again, I love my age for the most part. This is just my personal experience.
- When in doubt, stay quiet.
Mark Twain famously said, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” I work in marketing, a fast-moving, youth-oriented profession full of acronyms like KPIs, CPLs and ILVs. If I’m not sure what someone means, I make a note of it and either research it on my own or reach out to one person post-meeting to get the scoop. I don’t want to look dumb or even clueless in front of my entire team.
- Watch your references.
I quote Seinfeld. Constantly. But not at work. My coworkers came of age watching Friends or How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory. Saying something like “Wow, you like me! You really like me” will have none of the irony or humor that would resonate with my peers. (I could be wrong, but my team may not even know who Sally Field is.)
- Look stylish, or at least try.
I work remotely the majority of the time, so most of our meetings are virtual. I haven’t sprung for Botox (though it’s on my radar), so I can’t do anything about the dreaded “11s” between my eyebrows or the fact that my neck is starting to soften (sob). I can opt for good lighting and camera angles to ensure that I don’t accentuate the most visible evidence of my age. That means I still color my gray hair too.
- Keep age-related issues to yourself.
Yeah, I got my second shingles vaccine this week and felt like crap for a couple of days. As a member of the sandwich generation, I worry about my 78-year-old mom’s memory issues as well as my kid’s college options. I debate where I want to retire in a few years. I don’t bring any of these topics up with coworkers. Maybe I could. This is just me.
- Avoid giving advice.
I’ve learned a lot about working with humans over the last 35 years of my career. I have lots of advice to give — which I keep to myself, most of the time. And when I offer it, I couch it in terms like … “have you considered” or “what about?”
Older women are sometimes seen as rigid or bossy, and I want my team to realize that I can remain flexible, creative, open-minded and productive even as the years accumulate. Demonstrating those qualities makes me more likely to be judged on my work — not my age.