How old are you?
I get asked that question all the time. In meetings, on conference calls, while pitching a new client. The answer really shouldn't matter. I find myself wondering whether male entrepreneurs get asked the same question, and why the person asking me doesn't consider it rude.
Age is messy these days, especially when it comes to jobs. While anecdotally, older workers (those 55+) claim that there is a bias against hiring them, their unemployment rate holds steady at 5.8 percent, according to the Department of Labor. While American culture often glorifies the young, this isn't translating into young people getting hired. In fact, the unemployment rate for those aged 18-29 rose to a staggering 12.1 percent last December, up nearly a percentage point from a year before. And yet we're not having a national conversation about age bias, even as we increasingly talk about other forms of bias.
Yes, employers want fresh, "hungry" college grads and workers (if you ask me, "hungry" is a euphemism for literal hunger, as jobs that often post for "hungry" individuals pay pennies) but it's still very hard to find employment. Law students from prestigious universities are taking unpaid internships. After graduating Magna Cum Laude from the University of Pennsylvania, I found it so difficult to find a job I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina to work for Young & Rubicam. I found many of my classmates following suit — moving to other countries.
Hence my discomfort with the question: How old are you?
When I am asked that question, it's usually to gauge if, at recently 26, the fact that I've had my own company, FinePoint Digital PR, for nearly two years is admirable, suspect, or something else. When asked, I often respond with, "You should never ask a lady her age." Where did I get that? Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, apparently in the 19th century while my other business was churning butter.
And yet the world of digital media and tech entrepreneurship has turned a lot of our assumptions about age on its head.
It used to be that in any industry, years of experience meant knowledge, leadership, and wisdom. And this paradigm hasn't completely died away; many male friends of mine lament about grey hairs, to which I often respond that it will probably help them in business, especially if they're in more traditional sectors like insurance or finance. They will be taken more seriously because they'll be perceived as older and more experienced. (Grey hair is decidedly more complicated for women.)
But if you work in entrepreneurship, technology, or digital media, it can feel like a competition to see who's the youngest. This, too, is complicated. The Forbes 30 Under 30 is a goal for many entrepreneurs I know, myself included. And yet I wrote the satirical Highlights "5 Under 5" to underscore my ambivalence about how obsessed we are with youthfulness these days, from wunderkinds to genius college dropouts. At SXSW this year, I was struck by how young everyone was — and how it sets a bar that is almost impossible to meet. This year's TED Conference even highlighted some speakers as young as 12. The speaking series has an entire teen division.
As complex as these ages issues are for men, being female renders them even more problematic. Too young, too old — we seem to instantaneously switch from one to the other. For instance, a close friend was asked her age at SXSW Interactive this year, and at 31, shocked the lothario who asked because, and I quote, "Girls aren't usually pretty after 28." Sure, that is only one guy's obnoxious comment. But it does seem like there's an awfully short window between "too young" and "too old," whether you're talking about business or pleasure. And with female leaders judged more harshly on their appearance, the two may not be as far apart as we like to think.
An entrepreneur is often the face, literally, of her company. When that face doesn't match our expectations, it's easy to become nonplussed. A male client, with whom I had worked for months before meeting in person, began our first face-to-face meeting with the exclamation "You're so young!" I wasn't quite sure what to say, and mostly I felt belittled and furious. (Think how you'd feel if you sat down with a client who blurted out, "You're so old!" Exactly.)
Sure, I'm young compared to some of my clients. To my grandmother, I'm eleven. (And I hope she keeps sending care packages, forever.) But compared to app developers out of Stanford, I'm ancient.
Working hard, disruption, and the entrepreneurial spirit knows no age. To judge based upon it would be juvenile.