Two years ago, my oldest sister turned 50. I think I was more traumatized than she was. Since then, I’ve given a lot of reflection to growing older. My sister hitting that milestone first was actually a blessing because it affords me plenty of time to think about my life, my work and getting older. I have the luxury of time on my side as I adjust to the reality of reaching the half century mark myself.
I remember when I was 39, my optometrist warned me that I would increasingly struggle to read small print. I laughed in her face. “No thanks, not happening,” was pretty much my response. And I did just fine for a long time. My husband is almost ten years older than me and when he asked me to read small text, I would smile or maybe even tease him playfully while I helped him out. When I finally started to encounter my own difficulties deciphering tiny letters, I discovered that it was no laughing matter. Imagine if you can’t read the small print before you sign a contract; if you can’t read the directions on a bottle of cough syrup; if you can’t read the ingredients on a food label to check for allergies. Not being able to see is not funny; it is an inconvenience, an annoyance, and possibly a hazard. I began to understand one of many reasons ADEA protects workers over the age of forty and I started stashing reading glasses by my bed, in my purse and at work.
I used to adroitly avoid questions about my age. When I first met my friend Shennee, she would ask how old I was and I had a lot of answers, everything from, “Ten years younger than my hubby,” to “Older than you,” to the sassy, “Old enough to sidestep that question.” But I the more I thought about my evasive tactics, the sillier they seemed and I grew increasing comfortable answering, “Forty eight.” Why should I hide my age? Why would I want to try to pretend to be 40, so that people whisper, “Wow, she looks really old for her age.” Why would I want to pretend to be something I’m not, or hide who I really am? That’s not living authentically.
Along those lines, I am working toward growing out my gray, or at the very least my pronounced Stacy London streak. (Here, I imagine collective gasps from many of my readers.) As far as I can tell, growing out gray hair is increasingly obvious and painful the longer one waits to start the process. I would rather take the plunge now when silvers are in the minority than wait until I’m completely white. I know from others who have completed this journey that I should expect criticism from many directions, overzealous suggestions that are
obnoxiously personal–as well as bastions of support gratefully received from unexpected corners.
Even as I admire my new silvers, I wonder how it will affect me at work. Will it be harder for me to attract young workers? Or will I gain more respect and credibility from some people? And what if I decide to change jobs? Will that be harder with gray/silver/multi-hued hair? My mid-life reflections also cause me to stop and ask where I want to go and what I want to do next. What do I want to accomplish for the rest of my life? Do I want to start over at a new organization or stay where I am? What new projects do I want to embrace? Should I write that book of memoirs of my African childhood?
I know this is a somewhat personal post, but this issue affects all of us, especially women. Women are judged by their appearance and feel great pressure to a degree most men couldn’t begin to fathom. Our society worships youth and beauty. We all struggle with issues of identity and appearance, and getting older can be a quite an obstacle course to navigate. (I once joked that in retrospect, I am grateful I was always “reasonably attractive” rather than “devastatingly beautiful.” Growing old gracefully is probably easier for me than someone in the latter category.)
In addition, as HR people, it doesn’t matter if we are 27 or 57, we are also faced with the possibility that our organizations may intentionally or unintentionally discriminate on the basis of age. I would imagine most of us have stories of blatant prejudice; I know I do. I will also say that my organization is very happy to recruit workers in the second half of their careers for some of our hard-to-fill professional positions. These more mature folks bring years of experience, advanced skill sets in many areas, and on top of that, they’re probably not going to jump ship tomorrow.
So enough about me. What about you? Do you have any personal reflections on growing older? On women with silver hair? Or thoughts or stories about age-related discrimination in the workplace? Is it rare? Rampant? Something you’re concerned about?
Photo: Robin, a real life Facebook acquaintance 18 months into her transition
About the author: Krista Francis, SPHR, is nonprofit HR Director and sometimes Acting Executive Director. She lives outside of Washington DC with her soccer-crazy hubby, two active teenagers, a neurotic cat and the best dog in the world, Rocky, aka Party like a Rockstar. In her loads of free time, she tries to keep her scooter running, tests margaritas for quality control purposes and blogs at aliveHR. You can connect with her on Twitter as @kristafrancis.
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