A colleague said like it or don't, I should think of age as a threat when it comes to my career. I said yeah, I get it, but I'm only 57! When did that get old? Then I asked myself whether it would be any different if I were 60 or 65 or 70? Chronological age is irrelevant when you are talking about skills, talent, passion and drive.
Another colleague referenced a baby boomer executive who is -- gasp -- over 60, and she said, "Why is he still here? He should just go."
The fact is, there are a lot of us baby boomers in the workplace. We are getting older, and everyone else needs to get over it.
I embrace aging and happily tackle this topic, because I'm not scared. What I've tried to do is create a safe house on the internet for exploring this chapter of life with humor, honest introspection and critical observation.
What a naive daredevil! Sadly, I've come to realize that in most interpersonal exchanges, age probably needs to go in the bucket with race, religion and sexual orientation. Proceed with caution. Save it for people you trust. Choose your words carefully.
Here's where I went wrong. When my colleague mentioned the 60-something executive, I said, "I'm not far behind." I wanted to challenge her, like I dare you to tell me it's time to go. But I erred by making it personal. She thought I was younger, and I blew my cover. I was now different in her eyes. Old.
Are we at the beginning of a revolution? It feels like the 60s and 70s, when women and people of color accelerated the movement by crafting a language of pride and respect.
We said women are not girls. Ms. became a magazine and a title that did not identify us by our relationship to a man.
We said let's stop categorizing everyone by the color of their skin. She's not a black engineer -- she's an engineer. We learned how to say stop, I don't want to hear an inappropriate joke (instead of suffering in silence).
It's risky territory, but we do need to have conversations about age, just so we can say, stop, that's inappropriate. But we must be smarter about it. Language matters. Words drive change. The right words will help us think about ourselves differently and counter the negative stereotypes of aging that permeate the landscape of life. What will be the language for fighting ageism?
Let's start with ourselves. We have to stop defining ourselves by age. It's just one dimension of who we are. Joking that we're over the hill or forever 29 or 60 years young doesn't do us any good.
Every time some guy calls his wife of 30 years his bride or refers to a 50-year old woman as young lady, a small fuzzy animal dies.
I want a do-over of my fumble with the colleague who apparently wants people over 60 to exit the workspace. The next time I don't want to make it personal. I could let it pass in silent acknowledgement -- a subtle nod that says they're old, and we're not. All I've done is fake my way into the club. I haven't tried to change anything.
One could remind these dolts that age is a protected class just like race, gender, religion or disability. That might put a little fear in their corporate souls. But I'm not out to make an enemy or get anyone fired. I genuinely like these people in spite of their occasional bouts of uninspired thinking.
Shall we think of this as a gentlewoman's guide to rebellion? Is there such a thing? Because I'm not a very good militant. I seek to enlighten and educate. I've been practicing what I might say when confronted with insensitive remarks about age. Something kind and positive that leaves no doubt but isn't defensive. Nothing sounds right.
What would you say?