To tell or not to tell. . . . In the past, the answer was easy. After a certain age, a woman never revealed her age.
But along with the curtsy and the corset, that coy custom may be headed for the historical trash heap. More and more women, it seems, are ready to come out and speak the chronological truth.
"I'm 62 and proud of it," says Barbara Ruth Robbins, who works for the YWCA in Portland, Ore. Whenever she hears younger women moaning about turning 30 or 40, she breaks in and says: "I'm 62. Look at what you have to look forward to!"
Defying the no-tell rule is still countercultural -- counter a culture that fears aging. Stereotypes persist that the decades after 50 are downhill. In a recent AARP study of public perceptions, nearly a third of those surveyed thought that a majority of older people are miserable and have no capacity for sex -- both, as AARP will attest, false perceptions.
That's why, in certain circumstances, there are good reasons not to reveal your age. Discrimination in the workplace is a reality. AARP advises older men and women not to put their age or graduation dates on a resume.
So how do you navigate these new shoals of chronological truth-telling? If you hide your age and try to pass for someone younger, are you buying into society's prejudice against older people? If you broadcast your age, do you risk being a target of the prejudice you are trying to break down?
"I do not lie about my age," says Karen Doty of Washington. "I am 61 and have learned over the years that the age I am is the best age there is."
But she sees how ageism works in the culture. She has two careers. For decades she has worked in the systems engineering field. Currently she has contracts to maintain security systems for computer networks. And since 1988 she has also been a Presbyterian minister.
"I find that it is easier for me to get contract work in my area of IT security if I do not reveal my age," she explains. For the first time in her engineering career, she is sensing subtle discrimination that she attributes to age. "I worry about the little-old-lady-in-tennis-shoes image," she says.
But age is an advantage in the ministry. "Being seen as grandmotherly seems to strengthen my position in many ways," she says. "The softness of the older woman is an advantage."
Doty is a widow. She has nine grandchildren. From computers to the ministry, she has been on the leading edge of women going into "men's" careers. Breaking down bias against the older woman is "a new forefront," she says. "I think women are getting to a point where 60 is not old. When people refer to someone who is 65 as old, I say: Excuse me?"
Today 65 is not "old" -- thanks to health gains and longevity. Americans have gained, on average, 10 biological years compared to their grandparents. This means older men and women are healthier and "younger" than previous generations at the same age.
To age well is an achievement. Eileen O'Brien, a medical technical writer at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, just celebrated her 50th birthday. "I don't know anyone who lies," she says. "What if I lied? People might say, 'For 44, she doesn't look too hot!' " Instead, people tell O'Brien she looks young for her age -- which she attributes to "indoor work, skin cream and no husbands."
This budding trend of age pride is very different from the aging shame of previous generations. Robbins remembers that her mother never revealed her age. "I still don't know how old my mother was when she died," she says.
Kathy Hardesty of Pismo Beach, Calif., recalls how all the women in her family grew up with the credo of "only a fool would tell her age." Her mother would not even disclose her age in a court battle over her retirement benefits. On one level, Hardesty agrees with her mother: "People prejudge you by your age," says Hardesty, 54.
But Hardesty, a freelance food and wine writer, is much fitter than her mother, who smoked and was overweight. "I respect my body," says Hardesty, a former chef. "People are amazed I have a 32-year-old daughter." She goes to aerobics classes, pays attention to nutrition.
"I started admitting my age more now because I'm proud of the way I've been taking care of myself," she says. Her new credo on age disclosure: "I don't volunteer it -- unless I am bragging!"
That seems to be the new rule for today's older generation. As it turns out, they have a lot to brag about.
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