I recently attended a digital marketing conference in Philadelphia, an educational opportunity in my own city that I could not pass up. I was psyched for two intense days of learning. Plus, there would be networking. I threw a new batch of business cards in my bag along with my iPhone and iPad.
As a marketing and communications professional eager to learn about trends in my field, this conference was a godsend. Roughly a thousand others felt likewise, given the size of the crowd at registration. As I waited in line, I scrolled through my Instagram feed. Conversations sprinkled with buzzwords — keyword optimization, Facebook's new algorithm, Google ad words — wafted around me.
I walked briskly through the vast hallways of the Convention Center to the opening session, a four-hour workshop on search engine optimization. On the way, I observed my fellow attendees. This was indeed a diverse crowd. White, black, brown faces. Probably half women, half men. A variety of dress, from suits to jeans.
There was one demographic noticeably absent, however: The 55-and-over segment.
Yeah, I'm talkin' 'bout my generation.
As I searched for a seat, I scanned the rows for another woman my age. Even a man my age. For God's sake, someone who would know I just quoted a lyric by The Who. I was adrift in a sea of millennials, Gen X-ers, Gen Z-ers, but, gee whiz, no Boomers. I tried shaking the uncomfortable feeling that I was a generational misfit.
Perhaps this was precisely why my contemporaries stayed away.
I live-tweeted throughout the conference, getting likes and follows and making some new Twitter friends. Had they realized I was close to the age of their parents, however, would they have been so willing to engage?
Maybe I was steeling myself for the bias I have encountered time and time again. Unlike some cultures, ours does not revere elders for their wisdom; rather, the idea of us older folks competing in a younger niche is scoffed at. Ask anyone over 50 about applying for a job. It's daunting.
Stereotypes about older folks persist. Try Googling "tech & senior citizens" images and you'll see what I mean. Doddering white hairs shaking their heads at this newfangled contraption, the smartphone. Puzzled seniors pointing at the screen and laughing maniacally.
Who are those people?
I admonished myself to ignore the lopsided demographics and instead concentrate on the presentations, which were excellent. After the final workshop, I waited behind two young women to ask the presenter a question. My mind wandered with ideas for the blog post I would write the next day, but a voice intruded into my thoughts.
"What can I do about my clients who are, like, in their 50s and 60s?" the first woman asked the presenter. "You know, like, … giggle … these old people, they are so clueless when it comes to social media, they just don't get it …"
I couldn't stop myself.
"I resent that," I said.
The second woman swiveled her head to stare at me. She tittered nervously. The first woman looked aghast. I felt my face redden but plunged ahead.
"What you just said. You realize that's ageism, right?"
The first woman spluttered and backed away, her friend grabbing her arm.
Later, I felt guilty. I hadn't meant to embarrass anyone. On the other hand, perhaps it had been a teaching moment.
The ability to acquire and master new skills — and be of value in the workplace — is not age-dependent. If we acquiesce to the label of incompetence, we tend to fade into the background. And avoid going to tech conferences.
Oh, and those new business cards? Never took them out of my bag. My teachable moment: Business cards are so last century.