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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I believe everything I do is tied my happiness, confidence and self awareness. I could be glammed up by the perfect team of clothes, hair and makeup and still not get where I want to go. I think my beauty radiates out from my heart and soul. I am only 38 and dye free and I love it. It’s me and I am real. I smile, laugh, dance, and I am in a an executive position. My energy is what gets people going, not my age or hair color. 🙂
Krista, I love the way you tie the very personal into the workplace. It’s a real struggle for women to make the decision to allow our age to really show. I am personally bad at guessing ages. I can only determine someone is “youngish” if they have very few eye wrinkles. For me, hair is an accessory and I like it brown, blonde, streaks of red. Who knows, maybe when I turn 50 I’ll dye it blue. I think women should all feel empowered to embrace whatever look regardless of age. What a lovely example you are setting!
Trish, yes, hair is an accessory….a very expensive one, lol, but one that can be a lot of fun. The women I work with are constantly doing something different to their hair. One day our receptionist will have a magenta buzz cut and the next day it’s a sleek chin-length bob. And then there’s me with the same old boring hair every day.
Thanks for all your comments, everyone. Sorry for the delay in responses; I just spent four days in NYC and ‘unplugged’ other than taking pictures on my phone.
@Andrea, I hope you weren’t thinking the photo is of me–it is actually Robin, an acquaintance from the Facebook group Going Grey, Looking Great. (Speaking of which, doesn’t she look radiant?)
@Naomi, great reminder to enjoy every day we’re given.
@Camellia, I agree one’s field can make a lot of difference. And kudos on the youthful skin…
@Dorothy, your demographics are almost identical to my organization’s. Also, as a small/midsized nonprofit, we often seek out people in the second half (or third third) of their working life for certain senior and/or hard-to-fill positions.
I definitely think it depends on what field you are in. I am a contractor in IT and have to deal with the very real perception that ‘old(er) people can’t/don’t know the cool new stuff’.
I am blonde/blue and, thanks to my fair skin causing me to avoid the sun for my entire life, I actually look about two decades younger than my actual age. So I will definitely keep getting those regular root hair color touch-ups so I can continue to compete in my field.
Hi Krista – Nice article and cheers to you for taking on the gray – or as I like to call it, silver! Though I’m not gray, I am 51. Physiologically. Psychologically, I’m much younger – maybe 35….But with the wisdom and experience of all the years in between. I am in Andrea’s court – maturity, common sense, and sense of humor – all keep you, and us, in the present. And valuable. To our family. Our organization. Our community.
I don’t see age discrimination in our organization. We employ folks from 18 to 88. Our median age is 44. We are also just under 80% female. We could use some more wise women nearer the top of the organization, but we’ve come a long way baby, in the last 10 years. We’ve moved from promotion due to years of service to promotion based on results obtained. It’s not without pain, but it is positive movement!
I’ll be 67 next month, and I’ve never made any bones about my age in my professional or personal life. So many of my friends growing up, not to mention favorite cousins and even my birth mother, never made it this far, lost long before their time to the Vietnam War, cancer, accidents of all kinds, and so much more. Those of us who are blessed to be here, at any age, are already ahead of the game. So flaunt the wisdom, the experiences, the relationships that living long has allowed you to develop, and use all of this to the benefit of mankind and of your own life. Naomi
You look amazing, Krista!! Thanks for sharing your personal side with us. I’m not brave enough to go gray…yet. But if my visits to the salon get any more frequent, I will have to!! Your maturity, common sense, and sense of humor would be an asset to any organization.