18 Jul 2023

The etiquette of age

The Equality Act of 2010 protects us from age discrimination in all aspects of employment, including recruitment, terms and conditions, promotions and transfers. It also protects us from direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation. This is the legal background to a very British concern: the desire to keep our age to ourselves.

Children and young people revel in their age and welcome milestones, with their ever-widening range of possibilities, with enthusiasm (driving at 17, drinking in pubs, marrying and voting at 18, the symbolic “keys to the door” at 21). But very soon this exuberant embrace of aging is discarded, and a much more circumspect attitude is embraced.

While fresh-faced twenty-somethings would appear to have nothing to fear, many feel that they have encountered reverse age discrimination: older people make disparaging remarks like “policemen seem to be getting younger these days” or marvel at extreme youth, which they appear to see as an impediment when it comes to taking responsibility or shouldering daunting challenges.

We all know that age is just a number, and that conscientiousness, effectiveness, reliability and so on are character traits that have very little to do with longevity. Inevitably, however, the question of age becomes much more pressing as the years go by and, in a society where the ideals of youthful beauty and energy are remorselessly being promoted through all forms of media, age can be a dangerous, as well as discriminatory, topic.

Traditionally, it was considered particularly impolite to ask a woman her age. While men were given some credit for their advanced years – experience, gravitas, senior status and so on – older women were seen as being diminished by age. While it is to be hoped that these notions are now seen as old-fashioned, especially when we are confronted by a panoply of role models of older people whose zest for life and continuing achievements are truly awe-inspiring, the conventional reticence about asking about a person’s age remains.

The main issue when it comes to asking a person’s age (of either gender) is that as a result that person may be consigned into a tick-box category (early 40s, over-50s, pensioner, 80s+), which may carry many preconceptions, and hence limitations. These expectations can be extremely circumscribed and rigid, yet we’re all aware that, as we begin to mature, our perceptions of age keep pace with our own experience of aging. Our notions of what constitutes “old age” are rapidly recalibrated, and our appreciation of what constitutes “age-appropriate” behaviour is amended accordingly.  

Many people find being asked about their age intrusive and resent being “boxed” into an age group, which they feel has little to do with their own self-perception and value. It is this reasoning that lies behind the Equality Act, which ensures that these preconceptions and prejudices do not muddy the waters when it comes to employment.

A safe default, therefore, is not to ask direct questions like “How old are you?” or “When were you born?”. If you’re desperate to find out (even if it is only approximately) somebody’s age, you should approach the question in a much more subtle and crabwise fashion, maybe turning the conversation to topics like schooldays, university, early working life, or perhaps initiating a general discussion about your recollections of children’s television, or popular culture during your teenage years. These questions may well elicit recollections and insights that will help you to make a reasonable guess about a person’s age. This may all seem impossibly circuitous, but it is considered the polite way to proceed. It allows personal information to emerge naturally, without putting people on the spot, or making them feel interrogated. Don’t have recourse to the cheesy option of using flattery and compliments to disarm your target: “You’ve got the most wonderful skin – may I ask how old you are?” Most people will spot the ruse a mile off and may find it intensely irritating.

If you don’t like revealing your age, for whatever reason, and somebody asks you a direct question, it is perfectly acceptable to deflect it. You could say something like “I make it a policy never to tell anybody my age!” or “Why do you ask?” or “I’d prefer to keep that to myself” or “I really don’t think age is important.” This should shut down all but the most persistent interrogators.

Of course, many people have no problem revealing their age, and are quite happy to communicate it to all and sundry. They might do this directly, by stating their age, birth year, or birth decade (“I was a child of the sixties’). Or they may do it more subtly by dropping hints: “It was so brilliant getting my bus pass last year” or “It makes you feel so middle-aged when you have to tick the 50-55 box on forms!”.

Many people would argue that the most liberating option is not to care too much either way: to give a straight answer to a straight question, if that is what is required, and not to recoil defensively when confronted by an importunate person.


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