Beware the Ageist Within

In recent conversations with a couple of women clients, issues of age and future career dreams have come to the surface. I’ve been grappling with this myself, so I thought it worth exploring. The overriding fear/worry is that it’s “too late.” At first I regarded it as a primary issue for mid-to-late career women. (None of my men clients are talking about this anyway.) Then I remembered conversations with my son over the past couple of years - now in his early 30’s - in which he expressed concern that he’s not where he “should” be in his life or career. No doubt, the content of the concerns are different, but the fact that any of us are judging and potentially limiting ourselves due to arbitrary age markers is noteworthy.

Clearly, life markers are alive and well in the collective conscious. My sense is that there was one generation where the prescription for a successful life might have matched the potential to fulfill these expectations:

  • Be a good student and graduate from high school (5-18 years old)"
  • Go to college to prepare for a successful career (18-22 years old)
  • Start a career that will give you long-term "security and offer a steady rise in the company through retirement (23-65 years old)
  • Somewhere in there, marry your partner for a lifetime, have a couple of kids and be there for and with each other until death to you part (As soon as you can but not before you're ready, please)
  • Save for your retirement so that when you reach 65 years of age you need not worry about money

This was the middle class prescription for a successful life anyway.

Such narrow guidelines for a satisfying and successful life have little bearing on what is happening in the world now. What's more, they don't account for the many, often unpredictable factors that can influence one's trajectory. Yet, we live under their shadow, having internalized these expectations and made them our own.  Oh, how we limit ourselves when we let our physical age curtail our belief that whatever we might be drawn to doing or exploring, is no longer “reasonable” and/or possible.

Where are Your “Vulnerability Receptors?”

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A year after starting my coaching business I became a certified Work Less, Make More ® (WLMM) coach. One of the participants in the first WLMM workshop I led was a 63 year-old woman. I don’t remember what the discussion point was, but I will never forget the moment when she realized she was still being influenced by her mother, stuck in limiting beliefs about her own career progression.

As a new coach embarking on my own dream, it felt good to know I could create a space where this woman could first of all, recognize, and secondly loosen the grip on what was holding her back. I shared this with my Mom, and she said back to me, without hesitation, “If she hasn’t figured it out by her age she never will.” Ouch! Well, I’m close to that age now, and I’m still “figuring it out.”

These kinds of messages, even when you “know” they’re not necessarily true, are hard to shake. Depending on the source and what I’ll call our vulnerability receptors, some messages are so deeply ingested that loosening their grip can be pretty darn challenging. Yet, if left un-examined and unchallenged, they can become truths that need not be.

A Good Time for Role Models

I am a fan of role models, people who seem to have busted the myths that shape us. As I was reflecting on “the ageist that lives within” I found myself at the library, checking out Jane Fonda’s latest book, Prime Time. She, too, had lived under the influences of a bucket load of insecurities and internalized messages that could have severely limited her enjoyment of what she refers to as the “Third Act” in life. Although she started her soul searching in her 40’s, she went even further as she entered her 60’s. She talks frankly about opening herself to intimacy, love and friendship in her later years, and a level of happiness and fulfillment that eluded her early in life.

The prescriptive life markers I outlined in the opening of this post are just that. As long as you are here you have purpose, and however and whatever you are called to – whether a shift in career direction, new love, a new hobby, etc. – there’s no need to let ageist rules and regulations stop you in your tracks. Sure, there will be factors to consider, such as health and existing obligations, but your age? Try telling that to Betty White or the late Don Rickles.