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Reflections on ageism

September 27, 2011

I remember when I was in my early 20s how old, experienced, smart, and amazing I felt.  I could take on the world.  I knew my stuff and was going to show everybody.

Recently I had occasion to meet a 21 year old who seemed, to me, like he was still in grade school.  He’s a smart guy with a world of experiences I’ve never had, but oh…my…gosh.  He seemed so, so young to my mid-30s mind.  Just looking at him I felt like I was looking at a kid I would babysit, not hang with.  And when he said he was born in 1990 I just about spit out my drink.  Sweet baby Jesus, I was in high school in 1990.  And I’m sure many of you were already through grad school or working in 1990.  Scary stuff, the passage of time.

Here’s the good thing that came out of that experience.  I now kind of (just kind of though) understand why all of my colleagues treated me like a child when I got my first librarian job at 24.  I must have looked to them like this person looked to me–too young to work, too young to be good at what I did.  It doesn’t excuse the abhorrent behavior I was subjected to on many occasions (the whole “Why don’t you leave and let the grown-ups talk, Sarah” comment at my first librarian job comes to mind), but it does make a little bit more sense to me now.

Now…twenty-somethings are smart.  I would argue they might actually be smarter than we are, because they’re so much closer to all of that wonderful intensive intellectual exploration we call school.  Most of us have let the learning slip out of our heads and haven’t put a whole lot back in.  We’ve gotten lazy, and probably less smart in the traditional sense.  We have built-up knowledge and experience, which is also profoundly helpful, but I would give credit where credit is due to the super smarts of our young friends.  We need to look past the baby fat on their still smooth faces and actually listen to them.

But we still do look at our young counterparts differently…and for the first time I understand why that happened to me.  It’s a gut instinct, an unconscious reaction to another being so much younger than you that you feel protective instead of on equal footing.  I don’t accept it in myself, and I hereby pledge that I won’t do it ever again to anyone else.  But I understand it now.  And that’s the learning I take with me today in my old codgerly brain.

And I swear, if anyone leaves some “but you’re only 34, you’re still a baby yourself” comments I will throttle you.  Seriously…I’m a librarian.  I can find out where you live.

“Reflections on ageism”

  1. Jessica Says:

    On top of being an academic librarian, I’m also an adjunct instructor at the college where I work. I taught a class of freshmen last year, and as I started the semester I realized that I was twice as old as they were. Blurgh.

  2. Sarah Says:

    Contrast that with the first time I taught a college class. I was 21, and teaching college freshman composition (at Washington State University, where I was getting my literature MA) to a room of 18 and 19 year olds. My authority was zero out of the gate, so I was a total hard ass to try to get everyone in line. Big mistake, since that’s not who I am naturally. I learned a painful lesson that first semester…but every time I taught or trained after that seemed easy by comparison! :)

  3. Stephanie Beverage Says:

    I am going to sound codgerly now – I remember when I first realized that I was no longer the “young one” at work. It was one of those “duh” moments, but they do tend to sneak up on you.

  4. Lea Says:

    I’m 26 and just graduated from library school in May 2010… currently I am the head Reference & Instruction Librarian at a small, satellite campus that focuses on adult education… I think that there is definitely still a lot for me to learn and a lot of experience to be gained, but I am so incredibly grateful that I have a boss who has complete faith and confidence in me– because she trusted me to take on this position, I feel like I have come out of my shell, so to speak, in so many ways– especially when it comes to doing library instruction. If only all librarians took on this attitude, that the younger fresh-out-of-grad-school librarians really do have a lot to offer AND they have the passion and enthusiasm to try new things and absorb as much as they can!

    I can’t even believe someone told you to “let the grown-ups talk,” even if that person was joking, I think that is so incredibly disrespectful and unprofessional– I aim to treat everyone I work with as an equal and a colleague, and even though I’m young, I expect the same from them!

    Thank-you for bringing up this issue, since there are so many new, younger professionals to the field of librarianship. I think there should be mutual respect and understanding from both sides, and there are things to be learned from many different backgrounds, perspectives and experience levels…

    ~ Lea

  5. Ally Says:

    I started my first library job right after turning 24 as well… I never had problems with coworkers or other librarians, but I was constantly being mistaken for a student, many times even after they found out I worked at this college. (I couldn’t count the number of times I was asked “so what are you studying anyway” at church, to which I would say “oh! I’m not in school, two degrees are enough for me now, thanks!” (which probably wasn’t the best way, but cracking a joke about being done with school seemed the less snotty way of reminding them that I’d already been through graduate school already thank you very much, I didn’t want another bachelors degree! At the school was even worse, there were all kinds of students who would ask me “so have you taken such and such yet?”) I’ve had much less problems in my new job – for one thing, librarians are faculty instead of staff (and there’s not a culture of having students call you by your first name, being Miss Last Name does help), plus starting it at 28 was enough of a difference I think (though I still get told I look very young)

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    Kind of unrelated, but last year I was at a Town Hall-sponsored workshop about workplace etiquette, sexual harassment, and laws governing the employment. Something that stuck with me is that age discrimination laws only work in one direction – it’s illegal to discriminate against someone for being too old for a job, but not because they’re too young. So if I were passed over for a job I was totally qualified for just because the boss considered me “too young,” that is perfectly legal – which felt totally wrong to me.

  7. Age « bringyournoise Says:

    [...] anything worth blogging about. And then, just now, I saw Andy Woodworth retweet your most recent post, Reflections on Ageism. And I was saved from my writer’s block because this post is screaming [...]

  8. Sarah Houghton (Librarian in Black) Says:

    Brian – YES! That has bothered me since I learned of it several years ago. It’s like saying you can discriminate against someone for being a man but not for being a woman. Insane.

  9. Jane Says:

    I’m 32 and I’ve now been working in libraries half my life. For several years I’ve been supervising, teaching, or in school alongside people older than me. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully get used to it (partially because my parents put me in school early so I have a bit of a youngin’ complex anyway.)
    I do feel like a pretty seasoned librarian now, though, and I am comfortable voicing my opinion, mentoring others, coaching supervisors, etc., whether they’re older than me or not. In my experience there are people who still see things with fresh eyes, try new ideas, etc., no matter how old or seasoned they may be. So, it may be a cliche, but I think you’re only as old as you think you are, and age ain’t nuthin but a number.

  10. bumsonseats Says:

    Thanks for this post! I think most of us have been in one situation or other that relates to this.
    The other week a customer said to me: “you have a lot of authority for a young bird, don’t you?!” I know I look younger than my 30 years but that was a bit odd.

  11. Hazel Edmunds Says:

    OK – come and throttle me – I’m twice your age, you’re younger than all my children. However, since I’ve never met you in person I can’t really say whether you LOOK young, can I?

  12. the.effing.librarian Says:

    let’s see, here are my twenties: illegal stuff, illegal stuff, breaking up with someone, illegal stuff, immoral stuff, vomiting, illegal stuff, breaking up with someone, illegal stuff, vomiting, vomiting.
    I absolutely know that 28 is the age where you become smart enough to earn the respect of “adults.” up to that, just accept you’re still a kid. It doesn’t matter how much you think you got your shit together or how clever you fee, 28 is it. And you won’t realize this until you turn 35.

  13. John Kirriemuir Says:

    If I have a beard, I get asked if I have a (senior) bus pass. If I don’t have a beard, I get asked if I am a student.

    Seriously. And on the same day, the last time I shaved.

    (I’m 43)

  14. Mary Says:

    I’m in my 50′s now and I still remember what it felt like to be that just out of library school newbie. They used to refer to me and my same age colleague as the “little girls who ran the library”. Gosh I hated that. So, I try to be ever so careful not to treat my newest colleagues the same way.

  15. Viccy Kemp Says:

    You are so funny! We dinosaurs who roam the landscape of librarianship do try to keep learning new things. But the two days I spent with you, Jessamyn and Michael wore me right out! My brain hurt. I am so glad you are around to keep me on my toes.

  16. Library Cat Says:

    After I graduated and went to my first professional position at the tender age of 26, I was told I looked like I was in my early 30′s, which helped me escape some of the “youngster” comments. The great shock to me, though, was the first time I realized that the summer associates at my law firm were young enough to be my children.

  17. Lisa Says:

    I’m only 28, and it still weirds me out that some people born in the 90s are already old enough to, say, buy alcohol…or have a “real” job.

  18. Emily Says:

    Yes, now that I’m in that middle-of-the-road age range as well, I feel like I do find myself looking at my younger colleagues a little differently. It’s not easy to look past inexperience and take their own brand of wisdom and insight to heart sometimes. But it’s worth it.

    It;s also (in my experience) worth it to look past preconceived notions about our elders in LibraryLand and realize that we look at them a bit differently as well. And they, too have a lot to offer in terms of their perspectives and experience.

    Actually, I’m kind of enjoying being somewhere in the middle these days… I try to look at it as a chance to learn from those who are younger and older, if I just give them a chance.

  19. Sarah Says:

    @the.effing.librarian: Wow. Your twenties sound kind of fun. Mine were, well, not. From 18-23 I worked full time and went to school full time (yes both), I got through undergrad with an English Literature major & two minors (Spanish & Psychology) in 3 years, did my MA in Irish Lit in 2 years, and then my MLIS in 3 semesters. Then I had my 24th birthday just as I started my new job as a eServices Librarian, and started this blog 2 years later. I did not have time for fun during college and grad school, something I regret. Though, emerging debt-free and with no arrests for illegal activity (those came later…for war protests, calm down) was a definite plus.

    @Hazel: I’m coming for you ;)

  20. Kim Allman Says:

    I will not say you’re still a baby if you will not refer to me as an old foggie. I am 52 and just started on my MLIS. So I am just a bit grey around the edges whipper snaper. ;)

  21. Katie D. Says:

    As a fellow 34-year-old (and *dude*, you must have skipped a couple of grades to be in high school in ’90, I bow down), who happens to mostly still look like she’s 24 (I got carded for the freaking lotto, *twice*, a couple of years ago), I know where you’re coming from. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts lately and am making a point to remind myself that while maturity and experiences often correlate with age, they never absolutely do. Also, it helps that my mental age seems to hover around 12 :D

  22. Molly Says:

    I’m a 35-year-old medical librarian and I swear the interns and residents look like they are all about 14! I started working in libraries in my mid-20′s and I was always treated well. My managers actually encouraged me to think of new ways of doing things in the library, to try and get them out of the ‘we’ve always done things this way’ rut. It was very empowering to be handed that trust and encouragement. I hope that I can pass that along when I start working with librarians younger than me.

  23. Bri Says:

    I am 21 and just began my MLS this fall. Last year (as a 20-year-old!) I was very concerned about not being taken seriously in library school due to my age…I came straight from my undergrad, and knew that a lot of library students took a few years off or came back to school after a significant amount of time off. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I haven’t felt out of place at all; in fact, I’ve even occasionally looked around and thought that other people who are 23, 24, seem so young. I think it has to do with how skittish some of my peers seem about librarianship. I was incredibly lucky to have a mentor who showed me the ropes, so I’ve jumped into my MLS at Indiana University. Other students, however, aren’t getting library jobs, volunteering, or joining student organizations, and I wonder why they think they’ll just be handed jobs without putting the work in.

    Rambling aside, in library school I think I am taken seriously because I take myself seriously. I’m trying on the “real librarian” role well ahead of time. I know that my mentor experienced similar ageism when she started her first job at 25, and no matter how hard I work I expect it to happen to me as well. I just hope I can become part of the group and prove my worth fairly quickly!

  24. Lynn Says:

    I had some tremendous mentors and coworkers when I started my first professional job one day shy of my 23rd birthday who took me seriously and let me try (and, in some cases, fail) things out on my own. They all helped me to become the strong, confident leader I am today. The brand-spankin’ new librarians I’ve just hired are shiny and young — ridiculously so, in some cases — and while I do feel a bit protective of them, more than anything I want to give them the same room to stretch and grow that I had.

  25. Matthew Says:

    Seriously, you’re just a bab…kidding!

    I came to the library world as a 2nd career. Career, is that what this is!? ha! In many ways, as someone who had not really been immersed in the library world as a page/student worker/assistant, I knew a lot less than most of the people around me, at least in terms of library terms, workflow, etc, no matter how old they were. In fact, it got me into trouble in my first post-grad job, where people assumed I knew more than I did. Anyway, out of that hell-hole.

    Now, as I work with/sometimes mentor our newbies, it feels great to return the favor of some who were patient and helpful in the beginning. As an older professional, I had more confidence to say, flat out, “I don’t know anything about that,” which might be harder for the younger among our profession.

    Either way, it’s great fun and you have a great, thought-provoking blog! Thanks for that.

  26. Steve Says:

    I’m enjoying all these anecdotes on precocious librarians – it’s good to know I’m not alone.

    The staff at my library has this habit of colloquially referring to all supervisory librarians as “seniors”. I landed my first senior role at the age of 23, and when one of my older colleagues would tell a difficult patron “I’ll just go get my senior”, and they’d bring back me – with the acne, fuzzy chin, and Element t-shirt – the patron would usually make some backward comments about my adolescent appearance.

    Now I’m 27, and since then, I’ve had much more flattering titles, team leader, coordinator. Unfortunately, the people in charge have officially changed my current job title to Senior Librarian recently. So it looks like I’m back to where I started.

    At least now I’ve got a few grey hairs to go along with the title.

  27. laura k Says:

    I can’t believe people told you to go away and let the grown ups talk!! That is so unprofessional, it hurts. I would be infuriated if I ever heard this on the job. Speaking as someone who has always looked younger than I am, I feel all this age stuff acutely. People often assume I’m younger than I am and must still be a student or can’t possibly have had a lot of career experience. Nope, I’ve been out of school for 10 years now, and working that whole time. I know some things.

    And still, for the first time, I see people in their twenties and think “No way, you’re a baby!” I appreciate your reminder to take a step back, and recognize that they have valuable things to contribute, too. (Let’s not even talk about the college freshman wandering all over Berkeley these days…holy infants!)

  28. Bill Drew Says:

    I understand how you are feeling. I am at the other end of the spectrum. I am 61 and many baby-faced librarians have treated me like I have never used a computer in my life. Fact is people of all ages in library land have much to offer. I for one am actually much more of a computer geek/ tech geek than my 24 year old son who has his Bachelors in online media and journalism. I learn from him and he learns from me. I am into social networking than most of those 20ish yearold librarians. Youare are not an old codger and at risk of you finding me, you are more baby faced than me.

  29. Sue Says:

    I was really happy to read your post, because I definitely feel like I’ve been the victim of ageism in many of the libraries where I’ve worked. Even in my thirties, when all the other people in my department were in their fifties and sixties, I still felt like I was patted on the head as the ‘naive young person who doesn’t understand how we do things around here.’ As I get older *cough* I will have to consciously try to NOT be patronizing to the eager, new young employees and instead take advantage of their energy and enthusiasm!

  30. Tess Says:

    Awww. You don’t LOOK 34! (I once saw you present at a conference–and, no, I’m not a stalker). I like how Bill (of Bill the Librarian) summed it up: “…people of all ages in library land have much to offer.” And, I *do* think the learning goes both ways. And, I am glad that you treat the 21 year old guy with respect–not like how they at your first gig. I hope he learns a lot from you in return. Bah…he’s got tons to learn from you!

    Anyhow, thank you for posting this–lots of introspection, understanding, acceptance and honesty. But, couldn’t help reading everyone’s comments—confessing their ages (in their 20s or not) and reading their accomplishments made me think of the Oct. 2nd NYT article on “Super People.”

  31. Molly Ireland Says:

    Come get me….. my daughter was born in 1989 and my son in 1991. I get your point, and we just hired a lot of 20 somethings. I love it. Lots of energy. Molly

  32. Catherine Voutier Says:

    Really enjoyed your post Sarah. I’ve had some problems myself with looking younger than my actual age, though now I 40, it isn’t too much of a problem anymore (thank you grey hair and wrinkles!). When I was in my 20′s, someone asked if I was still in primary school (I think you call this elementary school?) – that is how young I looked. Big problem when trying to find employment, though it was never started in the ‘thanks but no thanks’ rejection letter (bet it was an issue though). Anyway, I do commisserate with people when they complain about looking younger than their actual age. I won’t say what others said to me when I complained about looking young – “you are lucky!’ ie not taking the issue seriously. Hmm

  33. Yvonne Says:

    Age…It is all relative :) 17 years as a teacher librarian, 52 years young and still learning in my job, from the global online community..and still loving my job. A great post, and great conversations.

  34. rachael Says:

    Just reading this post made me feel I had the opportunity to vent my frustration, so thank you! I’m just shy of 27, and I have the voice of a 6 year old, so it can be such a struggle to feel like I’m being respected for my ideas when I’m speaking with anyone even remotely older than I. People regularly call me “sweetie” & “honey” & other such degrading pet-names in purely professional situations, and since I know it’s not sexual harassment, it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it. I know I’m still quite young & new to being a librarian, but I’m still an educated & intelligent person.

  35. Eric Says:

    I get a little loopy when I try to wrap my head around the experiences, or lack thereof, that a person born in 1990 might have. My first reaction is to sympathize that they missed the 80′s!

    I’m 32 but I look pretty young, so I often am treated as a person much younger (most people assume i’m 22 or so). Probably wearing a lot of black and having a quasi mohawk doesn’t help to make me look more mature, as opposed to more mainstream attire, but I still have to remain true to myself.

    Slowly, people have learned to take me more seriously, but it has been an uphill battle, and I haven’t taken any of that respect for granted.

    I’m glad you posted this, it has given me some good perspective on this topic!

  36. S. Says:

    I found this blog entry basically by google-ing keywords about supervisors degrading me at my job. I did not include Library in my search and was truly surprised to find this post. I am currently 26 years old. I began working in Libraries at 16. Became a Circulation supervisor shortly after, and at 22 became director of a small library. I also currently hold the highest level of certification for my position. I have worked very hard to do these things. However, the last 4 years of my life as director of this library have been one of the worst experiences I have ever had. The older ladies on our Library Board refer to me as “kiddo” and “pumpkin”. I can quote public library law in answer to a question and still have someone “older” check-up on the answer. When I provide statistics in response to research, I am told that I probably don’t understand or didn’t do it correctly. Everything I do is a battle to be heard, and they’re the ones that hired me!! I constantly feel I am not good enough and never feel like working in a Library again after this. However, your post was interesting and it is comforting to hear others struggle with age in Libraries as well.

  37. Mary Piero Carey Says:

    Heh, heh, “…find out where you live.” Indeed you can.

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