Act Your Age? Not If You Hope to Escape Age Discrimination

We can all agree that boomers and elders should act their age. But that doesn't mean they have to act old, which is the surest way to invite age bias at the office.

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Why should we try to stay young? In a recent post, I offered eight ways for boomers to stay hip without embarrassing themselves. The advice was meant to be taken in good fun, but also to be helpful. Still, I got pushback that is worth noting.

“What a crock,” lone reader commented. “Mindfulness is relevant. Compassion is relevant. Helping others is relevant. Being actively engaged in political, social, spiritual issues is relevant.”

Another chimed in: “Reality check: those who reach retirement are who they are. Trying to suddenly be cool or hip will make you look like an idiot.”

In interviewing a wide range of people for the piece I encountered similar thought. Cindy Joseph, who has an “ageless” make-up line called Boom, became indignant. Young people are just building on what boomers created—computers, the Internet, cell phones. “It is not for us to look to the younger generation for relevance,” she says. “The younger generation should pay attention so they stay relevant to us.”

There’s truth in all of this — and in my defense I made some these points myself. Yes, we Boomers should indeed act our age, and that means engaging in constructive pursuits like giving back and using our experience and influence to address political and social issues. And yes, we can look like idiots if we try too hard and show up wearing, say, a Speedo or crop top. And of course young people have much to learn from elders, which is why mentoring at work or school is such a worthwhile pursuit.

But all this misses an important point. Intergenerational ties may have benefits to all sides, but most young people don’t really get that. Boomers have to be the adults and make the effort. We have the most to lose if we become disconnected, isolated, and irrelevant.

The fact is, age discrimination in the workplace is a serious problem. New research out of Princeton shows that older workers who appear overly assertive and stuck in their ways are most likely to face a bias against them. No one likes a curmudgeon. “If you want to be an aging gray panther, and speak your mind to your manager, that’s fine,” Susan Fiske, a Princeton professor and a co-author of the study with Michael North, who recently completed his Ph.D., told The New York Times. “But expect consequences.”

Boomers account for the fastest-growing segment of workplace discrimination claims, which are on the rise. In 2012, 22,875 people filed age claims with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, compared with 15,875 in 1997. So we are feeling the heat. But what are we doing about it, other than file lawsuits? You can’t get a court order for cool.

Like it or not, growing old has consequences you’d rather delay. Trying too hard to look and act young is as bad as not trying at all. But somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot that will keep you in the game longer in an appropriate and comfortable manner. So don’t fool yourself: It’s on you to keep up the connections, and it’s worth the effort.

(MORERetirement Relevance: 8 Ways to Stay Hip Without Embarrassing Yourself)