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Age ain’t nothing but a number?

January 9th, 2005

Dr Petra

After completing an interview this morning for a woman’s magazine, the journalist asked me my age.

‘Thirty four’ I replied.
‘Oh’ she said ‘couldn’t you be thirty two?’
‘Well because thirty four is nearly thirty five, isn’t it?’

I replied it was, but asked her to explain since I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with thirty five. I soon discovered that being thirty five is a very bad thing.

The reason? Apparently thirty five sounds quite old, and could be off putting to readers. And also, she told me; if you’re much older than that you won’t look so good in a photo (unless it’s for an older woman’s magazine).

Which poses a bit of a problem. Given that many experts, particularly those working in academia, expect to gain seniority and experience with age, the thirty five cut off is going to make things tricky.

In the UK most senior lecturers get appointed in their early to mid-thirties. The youngest professors are in their forties, most are much older. And those at the head of their areas of expertise are usually heading for their fifties or beyond. Many of my colleagues continue to work, inspire, and inform policy twenty years or so past retirement age. One of my mentors is in his eighties.

Academia’s one of the few careers where, if you’ve something to contribute and someone to employ you, you can carry on working as long as you wish. At thirty four I’m a relative baby in academia.

But not in magazine world, where expertise is clearly not measured by experience, but classified by age.

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