Sorry, But Age Is Not Just a Number

When I was studying journalism in graduate school at Temple University in the mid-1970s, I learned that understanding the context of a situation is essential to a story. As part of this training, we were taught to include the age of the people we wrote about. It was considered a material fact without which our work was deemed unacceptable, incomplete.

Later in life when I was no longer reporting but still practicing the habit, it frequently got me into disputes. Women found it inappropriate and insulting, and some men objected to being “labeled” as a certain age. I’ve always argued that knowing people’s age helps to contextualize their life experience and may provide insights into their worldview and attitudes.

What Shook Your World, and When?

Today, I can’t tell if someone graduated high school at around the same time I did or 10 years earlier or later. It makes all the difference. For instance, if you were in second grade when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, it may barely have registered a blip on your mental timeline. But if you were a senior in high school, it could mark an indelible before-and-after after point with long-term implications for the way you think and react to life’s vicissitudes.

People my parents’ age, having lived through the Great Depression, frequently hoard rolls and leftovers from dinners at restaurants even though they have food to spare at home. On the other hand, today’s kids living through the age of new millennium massacres in elementary and high schools throughout the country are likely to have their sense of security and well-being warped for life.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

Consider the present. In one of his daily press briefings, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, 62, the coronavirus pandemic’s U.S. pater familias, described this period as follows:

You are living a moment in history … one of those moments they’re going to write and … talk about for generations … a moment that is going to change this nation. This is a moment that forges character, forges people, changes people — make them stronger, make them weaker — but this is a moment that will change character.

If you ask me, the effect this moment has on you will be different — perhaps vastly so — depending on your age. So when someone like me asks how old you are, please, don’t give them a lecture, just a number. It helps me understand who you are and what you’re going through. Thanks for understanding.

Martin D. Hirsch
Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.

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  1. An interesting view on age and certainly the experiences one lives through has a considerable bearing on a person’s opinions and attitudes. Our culture does tend to stereotype by age and that is unfortunate but may account for many showing resistance to stating their age.

  2. Martin — I get your point here. I was trained as a historian and taught high school history. History makes up about 90% of what I read. But as I read your piece, i wondered if there isn’t another way to get at age and context without asking it outright because as you point out, it offends some (many?) people. It can become a cudgel. “You’re only 28, so you never lived through Vietnam…” etc. Can you see getting at context by asking questions of curiosity and letting the conversation develop organically?

    Interesting piece. Made me think.

    • Yes, Jeff, I take your point and think there are other ways to get at the issue — such as asking what someone remembers about something that occurred at a certain time in history. As I, myself, ponder my own less sensitive way at boring directly in to ask someone’s age is that the desire to withhold the information out of a demand for greater sensitivity, to me, smacks of the whole social justice/political correctness movement, which has led to a tyranny of language requiring everyone to bow to demand that we not “trigger” anyone to feel anything that may be uncomfortable. Something deep in me rejects this and asking someone his or her (not “their”) age, plants me, at least in my own mind, in the other camp. Not that I’m not a generally liberal individual, mind you, but I place myself in the Bill Maher school of liberals who think political correctness has done more harm than good.

  3. Martin,I wonder if we talked on the phone would you know how old I am and in the end for us to connect and share our story would age matter. I have dear friends that are 25 and some 85 and we both share a common interest that goes way beyond age. Just a thought and I enjoyed your article and your question. It makes you ponder

    • Larry, I’m certain that if we talked on the phone I would not know your age, and it would not interfere with or detract from what I am equally certain would be a wonderful and enriching conversation. But during the conversation, I’m pretty sure I would ask your age to see if we both remember and lived through, say, driving up to the Sunoco station with our dads to buy gas at 25 cents a gallon, or diving under elementary school desks during air raids, or watching Howdy Doody on Saturday mornings, or enjoying Micky Mantle, Jim Brown, Bart Starr and Y.A. Tittle. This would be an added bonus. But it would still be a great conversation!

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