The day after Heather Harden’s most recent birthday, she posted on Facebook to acknowledge an abundance of greetings.
“It was a joyful 72nd! Thank you … for the good wishes,” she wrote.
Harden has never concealed her age. When she moved to the Twin Cities in 1985 to be KMSP’s lead news anchor, her age was listed in a newspaper account announcing her arrival.
“I was hired at 38, and the columnist pointedly observed that I would turn 40 during the term of my contract. There weren’t as many women anchors on local television over 40 then,” said Harden.
Now a financial adviser in private practice, Harden, of Bloomington, rocks a gray streak in her auburn hair.
“I grew up a feminist and resisted any notion that women should be ashamed of their age. In not saying it, maybe you’re implying you’re too old for something, and I can’t buy into that,” she said.
In her book “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism,” activist Ashton Applewhite devotes a chunk of a chapter to urging readers to “claim your age,” calling it an act that builds self-acceptance instead of self-denial.
“To go through life feeling like your worth diminishes as you get older is poisonous, individually and collectively,” said Applewhite, 67. “By attempting to hide the number, we reinforce the idea that humans have expiration dates and we don’t challenge or change the culture.”
But in a world that often worships youth more than wisdom, many people feel they have good reason to play coy, misrepresent or even shave a few years off the number.
Many an online dater has been taken in by an age fib accompanied by a not-so-recent photo. A survey by Opinion Matters, commissioned by a dating website, revealed that nearly one-third of men and one-fifth of women admitted to lying about their age in their dating profiles.
But it’s in the workplace where people may be most tempted to stop the clock. Many job and résumé coaches and career advice websites advise applicants to be vague about graduation dates and warn them away from stating the number of years they’ve accumulated in their careers.
Workers have good reason to be wary about sticking to a personal honesty policy. Data analysis by Pro Publica and the Urban Institute found that more than half of older Americans were pushed out of jobs before they chose to retire. And a survey by specialty insurer Hiscox USA concluded that age discrimination affects more than one in five workers starting at age 40.
“Reports of age discrimination are well-founded, with people passed over for promotions, treated differently and forced to take early retirement. Any way you cut the data, you find this is real and prevalent, regardless of the career area,” said Tetyana Shippee, a social gerontologist and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota.
Earlier this year, Shippee published a study showing that women who experienced age discrimination at work reported lower life satisfaction and more depressive symptoms and chronic stress.
“Ageism starts picking up at age 50. It impacts mental and physical health and creates financial hardship among older workers,” she said. “Unlike discrimination against sexual and gender minorities or based on racial or ethnic backgrounds, all workers could fall victim to age discrimination in their later careers.”
Mary Lee says she “dances around” any question about how old she is, beyond saying that she’s a baby boomer.
After a long career in nonprofit arts management, Lee, of Minneapolis, began a master’s program in addiction counseling this year.
“When I applied they said, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ and I thought but didn’t say, ‘I should be retired.’ I chose a new career that I can do into my 70s. I like to work, I want to stay active and I need the money,” she said.
“In my cohort [of graduate students], I’m the oldest. I love to be with people of different ages, but if I admitted my age I would be judged and dismissed. There’s this assumption that you have ‘old thinking,’ that you aren’t interested in what’s new and how to do things differently.”
While getting older is inevitable, denying its reality has long preoccupied baby boomers, the generation credited with creating youth culture.
“Boomers created their own problem. When they were young, their rallying cry was, ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30,’ ” observed Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing and author of “Marketing to the Millennial Woman.”
“Before boomers, getting older was part of the natural evolution — not good, not bad, just the way it was. They are less accepting of the aging process. They’ve always wanted to break all the rules, including Mother Nature’s.”
Fishman, a consultant who advises companies on generational differences, predicts that Gen Xers, born between 1961 and 1981, may be more frank about telling their age as the years add up.
“Gen Xers are grounded and self-reliant. They grew up the children of divorce, the latchkey kids, so they learned to be survivors. They are truth lovers, practical in all parts of their lives including aging.”
The end of the lie?
Adjusting the year on a birth certificate downward has long been standard practice in show business.
In 2011, actress Junie Hoang sued entertainment website IMDb for $1 million for revealing her age (then 40) in her profile, claiming it could cause her to lose employment opportunities. Her claims were dismissed in federal court. Five years later, the state of California passed a statute that allowed performers to forbid the website from stating their ages. IMDb received some 2,300 requests to remove birth dates from the site.
But in 2017, a California federal judge ruled that law unconstitutional because singling out age data restricted free speech. While the ruling is being appealed, biographical information about age is now routinely posted on IMDb — including for Hoang.
The same databases that reveal the ages of celebrities may make it pointless for the rest of us to fudge our years.
Curious about the age of a friend, neighbor or co-worker? Pop their name in any search engine and watch how quickly your question will be resolved. Birth dates are embedded in public records and easily retrieved.
In the future, the fact that we can’t hide our age — even if we want to — may shape the decision about whether to embrace those birthdays.
“I’m not embarrassed to be 72, I’m damn proud,” said Heather Harden. “If my age is shocking to you, that’s on you, not me.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.