Birthday Damage Control for Older Workers

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There are two kinds of damage inflicted by birthdays when you’re older: self-inflicted and other-inflicted.

They both warrant damage control, irrespective of how the birthday and age issues arise. Some spooky number may have simply clicked into place on your clock, or some inquisitive colleague has asked you your sign as a segue to your birthday and from there to your age.

Worse, you may have unthinkingly mentioned that today is your birthday, without considering the obvious follow-up interrogative fallout that would trigger.

In the last 24 hours, I have received two emails from two male friends, both professionals, whose ticking clocks seem to have existentially, physically and/or socially—but not yet professionally—rung alarms: The first was from a professional guidance counselor, who at 45 is lamenting weight gain, diminished vitality and a sense of looming physical and social finality, if not yet mortality.

The second was from “Superman” (as I shall call him)—an incredibly fit athlete and distinguished corporate executive who, at 50, nonetheless feels the weight of his many notable life milestones and monuments. As he put it, “Regarding 50, yes, for the first time I feel, at least, not young anymore.” However, he added, that, for now, he’s treating 50 like “just a number”.

Although neither mentioned any professional impact of age, the facts of workplace ageism are undeniable, as are the psychological impacts on those aging. So, how do you deal with snoops who, guessing, misestimating and doggedly curious about your age, take the step of asking you outright?

Then, of course, there are those who are not the least bit curious about your age, but ask nonetheless, just so they can proudly tell you theirs, i.e., how very young they are, or test the perceptions and guesses of others regarding their own age.

Others may be easier to deal with than oneself. But with their questioning and probing and its consequences under control, how do you then handle your own feelings and perspectives, when they are negative?

Start with the others, including colleagues or careless employers: When probed about your age—and it can be any age, if you are concerned about your privacy, identity theft, being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, or anything else, not necessarily limited to in fact being older—how can you respond to “how old are you” probes?

Humor: the First Line of Defense

Consider these responses:

  • “I don’t believe in (carbon) dating colleagues.”
  • “Is this about life insurance?”
  • “Too young to want babies, too old to have them.”
  • “Younger than my birth certificate.”
  • “By which or whose clock?”
  • “Old enough to wonder why so many people ask, young enough to remember the answer.”
  • “We aren’t the same age, but are in the same age.”
  • “Don’t know. My birth certificate got smashed by a T-Rex just after being chiseled.”
  • “I used to know what ‘birthday’ means. Remind me.”
  • “Probably older than you wish and younger than you fear.”
  • “I’ll tell you as soon as I’ve had my age legally changed.”

Birthday Damage ControlPlan B

That’s the first and probably best line of defense: acerbic, edifying humor. The alternatives that are unlikely to be as successful include

brazen, direct honest revelation: You may imagine that if you proudly or nonchalantly disclose your age it will either win you respect for being comfortable with your years or convince others it’s no big deal. The problem with that is it is only what you imagine. The actual consequences—including workplace social and professional discrimination—maybe less favorable, and are likely to residually filter through the workplace collective awareness as the circulated number, minus the heroic or minimalist staging and mitigation.

an existential or scientific lecture about age, time, mortality, relativity, etc.: Even if what you have to say about these may be insightful and even important, it is very likely to be seen as too defensive or elitist-aggressive, especially if the ideas are too complex for the audience.

sharp dismissal: The “it’s none of your business” approach may intimidate or dazzle some, but is more likely to make you seem way too defensive, aggressive, unfriendly and unapproachable, despite whatever tough-guy/girl cred it wins you with others.

aura of masked-man mystery:The James Bondian “if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you” sort of mysterious evasion is unlikely to either satisfy or engage many in the enquiring or otherwise curious audience. This is especially the case if the questioning colleague is also checking out dating and mating possibilities.

One reason for her persistence, if you are a guy, is the unconscious cost-benefit analysis that can occur regarding the costs of breeding with someone who may be retiring on a reduced income and at risk of costly health issues at the worst possible time: when her future kids will be ready for very expensive colleges and universities.

That’s, I believe, why 45 is the cut-off point imposed by so many women, as the maximum acceptable age for a prospective mate. Do the math: 45 + 20 (age of near graduation) = 65. the current standard retirement age (after which health tends to deteriorate for many).

For women being asked, similar calculations—also related to breeding and broods—also often apply, but with even less charitable age limits, e.g., late 30s, given age-related fertility peaks and time limits for women.

the guessing game: Trying the “well, guess my age” ploy will, at best, buy you a little time and at worst make you seem vain and overly concerned about your age, overly proud of looking younger than your years, or amateurishly evasive.

If the guessing ends without disclosure, the persistent will persist and resume their interrogation. You can win with this tack only if they sincerely guess much higher than your actual age. But even that will be only a conditional win, contingent on your real age not falling within the “dead man walking” zone.

self-pity: Portraying yourself as acutely aware of the ravages of time and the ominous implications of advancing years may win you some sympathy and consoling; but at the end of the day, including your birthday, office gossip is likely to trump office compassion, if you climb your cross to publicly announce your age.

Birthday Damage Self-Management

These considerations leave self-management as the remaining task: How should you frame or reframe your age if it’s a “spooky” number—socially, professionally, medically or more broadly speaking existentially scary?

First, psychologically decouple it from the external solar or cesium clocks. Ultimately, the clock that counts is your internal cellular and metabolic ticker. You may be a statistical outlier with physically decoupled internal and external clocks, and aging more slowly and with greater vitality than average.

Capitalizing on such good luck is a tactic that serves as a useful component of a broader “internal locus of control” strategy—making internal, autonomous factors control your priorities, perspectives, priorities, decisions, values and, above all, your value.

The less salutary alternative is to have an “external locus of control”—control by the opinions, pressures, standards, demands, biases and expectations of others, which leaves you at the mercy of the judgment and vagaries of others, often needlessly and avoidably so.

Second, don’t treat you life milestones as tombstones. The milestones can remain as monuments to a life well lived without becoming headstones of a life that is (about to be) over. Life’s major markers should serve as markers of events and transitions, not as rows in an actuarial, health and life-expectancy table.

Third, lose any negative biases you have toward older people—even if you are 20 and biased against anyone as young as 30. If you don’t, when your turn comes, you may very well see yourself through the same unforgiving, stereotypic lenses you previously viewed others at the age you will have reached yourself.

Fourth, understand that for younger people, being older is a mathematically bigger deal than it is for those who are older, primarily because of the greater “marginal utility” of years in their life calculations.

For a 20-year-old, a 40-year-old is 100% older—which means that the 20 years that separate them are 100% of the younger individual’s life-to-date, i.e., have a marginal utility, relative weight or “yardstick” measure, in terms of sheer quantity, equivalent to his or her entire life.

For the 40-year-old, the 20-year age difference is only half of the total life-to-date and not such a big difference, given the longer, 40-year yardstick (as compared to a 20-year yardstick). So, given this math, don’t allow the “big deal” negative perceptions of younger people to contaminate your self-perceptions and valuations.

Finally, when dealing with truly relentless age interrogations, simply explain that you will gladly state your age…

…when asked by the IRS.

And hope it gets you a tax deduction.

Read more in Age Discrimination

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).