May 31, 2007

Agism & Career

Business magazines love to gush over CEOs who barely left the crib. In December, BusinessWeek ran a story on "CEOs 40 and Under." Meanwhile Forbes highlighted "America's Youngest CEOs," who were all around 33 years of age. But most of their success as an entrepreneur began in college or soon thereafter. Then you've got Red Herring's "Tech Tots" who are all under 30 years of age... some are even as young as 17.

Each age has its benefits and hindrences, even though at some point age stops mattering, or so I've been told. Additionally, being female, age has further significance when it comes to how others view you in a work enviornment.

Since I can't speak for 40 year olds or 30 year olds or 27 year olds, I'll focus on what I know best.

I'm 23 years old. What does that mean? Well, I'm certainly no longer 18. That seems to be the last age with a real clear definition in my mind. Once upon a time 21 seemed like a big milestone, but two years past that birthday, I see little has changed upon passing that overrated celebration of aging flesh and mind. 18 meant something. It wasn't at all about getting the right to vote, or to gyrate naked on some dirty, wealthy man in a strip club had I any desire to do so. It was just the year that I legally grew out of being my parent's kid and became my own person. Of course that took a few years to accept, but when I turned 18 I stopped being a kid and became, well, sort of an adult.

Then the years flew by. Heck, that was nearly six years ago. I was a freshman in college then. Somehow I managed to wrap up undergrad in four years. Two years later, I'm an entry-level worker in the wonderful world of reality.

The first year I got out of college was really tough for me. I didn't quite understand how old I was, I just felt like this 14 year old playing dress up when I went on job interviews. I'd put on some suit, fix my makeup, ensure my lip gloss was no more than a nanometer out of place, and headed off in my "new" used car, and attempted to promote my greatness to some stranger who responded with little more than a nod.

How I got through that year, I'll never know. There were certainly days when I could have called it quits. I'm glad I stuck it out, though.

After all of that, I landed a full-time job. As I noted before, I work in the editorial department of a magazine. Being as I work in business journalism, the people I work with are extremely smart. They're also all at least four years older than me. That is, others who have the same title I do (and started after me) are at least four years older. Most of them have advanced degrees. So it's just an awkward spot for me to be in... given that in order to prove myself I not only have to prove that I'm a hard worker and talented enough for my age and experience, I have to prove somehow that I'm really just as smart and talented and motivated as my colleagues who've been around the professional block.

It feels weird for admitting my age to co-workers to feel like such a dirty thing. If someone asks me how old I am at work, it feels like they might as well ask me which site I prefer to surf for my weekly dosage of porn viewing. It's not something I like to discuss publically. I'm embarressed by it. I'm only 23. Then again, people can be successful at any age. Folks are getting into Stanford at 18 (there goes my Ivy Envy again) and they've surely accomplished great feats well before filling out their college applications. When it comes to success, age is irrelevant.

But so much of my profession is about being respected and getting to know sources. So much of it is about being able to, well, talk the talk and walk the walk. And to be honest I still feel like that little girl playing dress up. I don't know if the feeling is enhanced because I'm female or what... one of my co-workers, a female, told me once that she feels like we're working in a boys club... and it's true. One out of maybe 400 venture capitalists is female (this is a guess, but it's likely true), and the stats are probably similiar for CEOs.

Of course the topic of gender requires it's own entry and... I'm not about to write three entries in one night. :) But age in itself is an issue worth discussing. There's a feeling towards people who "just graduated." It just so happens these days "just graduated" doesn't really give away a person's age. Plenty of people went to community college, took a few years off, and maybe wrapped up their schooling in their mid-20s. Well, I started undergrad at 17 and I was out by 21.

I'm really tired of hearing that I'm "young" and "inexperienced." Yes, that's true, but it's not like I'm oblivious to the fact. And while I'd like to think I do a good job given... my age, my "experience," and my abilities... I'm not sure what is "enough." I believe that if I were male I'd be treated a lot differently. Sure I'd still be "young" and "inexperienced," but I think my age would matter less.

Am I still "entry-level" just because I'm young? Sometimes I feel like I need to be at least 25, or have a higher degree to be considered anything but entry level. But that's just my mind playing tricks on me and my billions of insecurities, right?


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