“Ruth, you have a birthday coming up!”
My friend’s voice contained an odd note of reproach, faint but unmistakable. The reason quickly became clear.
“You have to get your age off your Facebook profile,” my friend said. She is an experienced Washington hand, a former administration official, a woman of, well, an uncertain age; her Facebook page doesn’t tell. “Have you lost your mind?”
Well, not yet. I mean, not that I’ve noticed. But I am about to turn 58. Not ancient, but still: less wunderkind, more éminence grise, although the eminence is debatable and the grise eminently concealable. And, actually, neither wunder nor kind. I once was one of the two, anyway.
Instead, I am old enough that age is a liability. It is a number to be shielded from public view, shaded if possible, mumbled if compelled. You, television booker; you, publisher of new media venture looking for a new editor — you’re probably not wondering: Where can I find a middle-aged woman to sign up?
I remember weighing the matter when creating a Facebook account and deciding, rashly, to include my birth year. What did I have to hide?
But that was 49. This is now. Still in my first half-century, I was probably being naively insouciant about the relevance of aging and the pitfalls of transparency.
This sensitive subject has both a demographic and a gender component.
Every generation confronts the uncomfortable reality that its time is passing and that it is about to be supplanted by the next. Michael Kinsley captures this phenomenon in his new book, “Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide,” writing about the moment when you are no longer rumored for a plum job opening.
“Even if it’s a job you don’t want or can’t take, it hurts the first time you’re not even mentioned as a candidate,” Kinsley writes. “It says that in a boomer culture that celebrates youth, you no longer qualify as young. Ouch.”
This phenomenon, for us baby boomers, may be even more stinging — and I’m not just talking about the fact that my annual checkup just revealed that I have shrunk. An inch. Of which I did not have that many to spare.
Life expectancy is growing, meaning that we have the prospect of decades ahead once we reach ordinary retirement age. When my husband and I visited our financial planner recently, we were advised to amass enough retirement savings to last through age 95. Okay, but I’m not planning to spend 30 years sitting around and knitting, as much as I like to knit. My mom, soon to be 82, is a crackerjack tax accountant.
At the same time, the explosion and primacy of technology have served to reduce the value, both real and perceived, of experience. The traditional path in my line of work, for instance, was that a young journalist would spend years in the reporting trenches before being given a column.
Today, the Internet has lowered, if not eliminated, the barriers to entry for opinion writing, and the whippersnappers, it turns out, are awfully good.
Age is an even more fraught subject when tangled up with gender. The older gentleman is distinguished. The older woman is . . . haggard. Why do we talk about Hillary Clinton’s age but not Donald Trump’s, although he is a year older?
I feel okay about my neck — thanks for freaking us all out about that, Nora Ephron — but I have started to obsess about my eyelids. I am experiencing what Barbara Bradley Hagerty, in “Life Reimagined,” describes as the “disconnect between my 30-something self-image and my 50-something reality.”
About that reality: A working paper last year from the National Bureau of Economic Research found “unambiguous evidence of age discrimination for female job applicants.” Economists sent out phony résumés, from older (64 to 66), middle-aged (49 to 51) and young (29 to 31) workers for retail sales, administrative assistant, janitorial and security guard jobs, ultimately “applying” for more than 40,000 positions.
They found “strong overall evidence of age discrimination, with callback rates statistically significantly lower by about 18 percent for middle-aged workers, and about 35 percent for older workers.” But the evidence was much more “consistent and compelling” for older women.
One reason, the researchers posit, is that “physical appearance matters more for women” and because “age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men.” For this depressing but intuitively correct proposition, they cite additional research, which I might read.
After my nap.