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January 6, 2012
'How Old Are You?' Answer: 'I'm 39. Again.'
 
In many Asian cultures, asking how old you are is considered to be a perfectly acceptable conversation starter. In fact, it’s important to establish who is older so the younger person can speak more deferentially since respect for elders is so highly revered.

It’s a little different in American culture.

Think of the ridiculous things we do to pretend we don’t age, from plastic surgery to plastic party cups that say Happy 39th Again. Age is so taboo that you’ll be sent to Social Siberia if you ask about it at a cocktail party. And in the workplace, the ban on discussing age is even more official, because if you’re over 40, you’re in a protected class. That’s right. According to the government, you’re Legally Old at 40.

So is it illegal for interviewers to ask your age?

Unless confirming that you are old enough to work or serve alcohol, prospective employers are not legally supposed to ask your age. But that doesn’t stop them. Sometimes they do it a little differently by asking what class you graduated in, or asking for a photo ID. If you’re filling out an application and are asked for dates, you can usually work around this. But what if you’re asked your age in a straightforward or roundabout way, in person?

How NOT to Answer
The number one thing is not to go into automatic defensive mode. Avoid saying:
  1. That’s against the law to ask me that question. No one wants to hire a litigious, cranky person.
  2. Nothing.  A long uncomfortable pause.
  3. A lie.
  4. A long rambling, answer.
How to Answer the Age Question
  1. Reframe the question. Janine Yancey, president of emTRAiN of Sacramento, CA, an employment law training company, advises to “tell the interviewer how many years you’ve been in the workforce. As a candidate, you could say, ‘If you are asking me how many years I’ve spent in this particular industry, I’ve been working for X years.’ You’re talking about relevant years of experience: it’s smooth, seamless, not confrontational.”
  2. Give them the answer. Whether it’s your graduation year or actual age, consider just answering it so you can move on to the next topic.
  3. Humor. If they point-blank ask your age and don’t even cloak it as, “When did you graduate?” explain that you are old enough to be around alcoholic beverages, if that is part of the job.
Sometimes there are good reasons to ask about your graduation date and age.
  1. Don’t automatically assume they are fishing for your age. Sometimes interviewers follow up with a question about your graduation date because they, or someone they know, went to the same school and are just using it for conversation fodder.
  2. If a security clearance is part of the job, there’s no getting around the age question as they will need photo IDs and have to do extensive background checks.
Finally, keep in mind that being another year older is much better than the alternative.

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As the editorial director of Mojo40.com, Susan Kim’s goal is to help people over 40 get their career mojo back with content that is helpful, entertaining, and free of marketing-ese like shifting paradigms. She previously was the creative director at advertising.com (AOL). You can connect with her via LinkedIn and Twitter.
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