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Work Advice: I’m a guy who looks younger than my age. How do I overcome this at work?

To project maturity and confidence, be as intentional about your style, grooming and communication as you are about your work

Men’s stylist and image consultant Patrick Kenger says his clients in leadership positions want to appear older. (Patrick Kenger)
5 min

Reader: I’m a 28-year-old man. Because of my genetics and how I take care of myself, I look younger than my age. People often ask if I’m still in college. When my parents bought a house recently, the agent asked if they cared about the school district, thinking my sister (26) and I were high school students.

This issue affects me at work, and elsewhere as well. Because I look young, people don’t take me as seriously. How can I combat this in the workplace? I’m almost 30. I want to be taken seriously and show others I’m competent and confident in my abilities.

Karla: Ten years ago, I answered a similar question from a young-looking woman struggling to be taken seriously in her career. The late, great Washington Post Magazine brought in two volunteers for a consultation with local style experts. The result: two polished professionals whose outward style matched their inner confidence.

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Only women volunteered for the original makeover, but as this week’s letter shows, looking “too” young can be a professional hindrance for men, as well.

“My political clients and those in leadership roles are very adamant about wanting to appear older,” says Patrick Kenger, a men’s stylist at Pivot Image Consultancy. Kenger provides one-on-one consultations and writes a blog with practical guidance on everything from choosing good colors to dealing with thinning hair.

Granted, women have some advantages. In our culture, there’s less social stigma against women using makeup and hairstyling as shortcuts to look more mature and sophisticated (although these open up other minefields for women to navigate).

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But most of the style tips Kenger offers follow the same principles for men and women: It’s about putting the same deliberation into your look that you put into your work.

  • Fit is everything. Whatever environment you work in and whatever you’re wearing, “make sure your clothing is fitted well to your body,” Kenger said in an email. Finding a tailor to take in baggy clothes and overlong sleeves is “the best hack … for elevating your appearance” affordably.

Make sure those clothes are a good demographic fit as well. Kenger recommends avoiding brands and stores that specifically target younger men: “It’s best to stick to plain, unbranded clothing if you’re trying to look older.” Bonus: Avoiding those trendy, youth-oriented labels will probably save you a few bucks, too.

  • Dress with intention. Whether you’re in a jeans-and-tees tech start-up or a more button-down sales job, “you always want to dress just one notch above what everyone else is doing,” Kenger advises. “If everyone is wearing a tee, you wear a polo, and so on.” Kenger’s “one notch” rule helps you stand out without overdoing it.
  • Groom with intention, too. Kenger recommends men keep their hair short and off the forehead; “this will help to open up the face and show off its angles, rather than round the face [in a way that makes] it look younger and softer.” It also means using some kind of hairstyling product to keep it in place.

One built-in advantage (and minefield) most men have is facial hair, which Kenger says has an aging effect. Of course, it needs to be neatly groomed as well — and, Kenger warns, “if your facial hair grows in patchy, it’s far better to go clean-shaven” than sport a “struggle beard.”

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Changing up your outward appearance can influence the impression you make on others, as well as how you carry yourself. Here are some internal habits and hacks you can adopt that tell people you’re more experienced than your line-free face and unsilvered temples suggest:

Move and speak with intention, just as you dress and groom with intention. End factual statements on a firm down note instead of letting your voice bounce up into a query. Speak from your diaphragm, not your tonsils.

Keep a neutral response or mild joke in your back pocket for those inevitable “Wait, you’re how old?” encounters — something that sounds automatic enough to make clear you’ve been around long enough to hear every variation on that tune.

Overall, you want to project the grounded, centered confidence of someone who’s in his element and whose well-earned reputation precedes him. Some of that just comes with time, but you can also speed the process by reminding yourself what you know and how far you’ve come. I can’t stand the expression “old soul,” but if it helps you get into the appropriate mind-set, go with it.

One last gentle nudge: Be careful about how much you attribute to self-care versus lucky genes and supportive life circumstances, and try to judge others accordingly. Even with a lifelong commitment to fitness, nutrition and sunscreen, it takes increased focus and effort to see the same benefits at 48 that came easily at 28.

And thanks to our society’s media-filtered perspective on what getting older looks like, the blade of underestimation cuts two ways: first against those who look younger than their years, and then against those who dare to look their actual age.

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