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Are You the “Adult in the Room”? What That Really Means

At our age, we have incredible work experience to share, but can we get past the hiring squad and rampant age bias? Lisa Marsh tells it like it is.

“Well … maybe they could use an adult in the room.” As she said that, I could practically see the wheels turning in Janna’s head. A close business contact, Janna also served as an advisor to a start-up website that targets young mothers. She and I were discussing an open position at the site that was firmly in my wheelhouse.

“My concern is that our founder could be threatened by you and your experience,” she said, thoughtfully.

This made little sense to me. The founder—a young mom who found a niche, busted her butt to launch a business on a shoestring, grew an audience, and raised a round of funding—looked to be badass from every angle. She needed help to establish systems and strategies for her content because her growing business needed more structure than its current reactive mode.

Wouldn’t it make sense to hire someone who knew how to do this? Someone who has developed content strategies for a number of related businesses? I thought so. Why wouldn’t you want to bring in an expert, no matter what their age or experience level?

Read More: Holes in My Résumé: The Challenges of Going Back to Work at Midlife

Is Being Called the “Adult” a Secret Code?

As for the phrase, “adult in the room,” I wasn’t sure if being referred to as that person was a good or a bad thing.

On the one hand, I am an adult in almost every room I enter, as the days of being the youngest person anywhere are few and far between. There’s an annual ladies’ luncheon and a couple of family events where I am on the lower end of the age range, but it’s a stretch.

The idea that being the adult in the room denotes being the ‘mom’—the one who has to discipline or even fire less-than-exemplary employees—is not a good thing.

Professionally, I should be the adult in the room. I’ve been around for years and have done it all (read: everything), several different ways. At every job and on every gig, I’ve learned something new, and that makes me confident that I’m making the right choices when making the decisions, big and small.

On the other hand, the idea that being the adult in the room denotes being the “mom”—the one who has to discipline or even fire less-than-exemplary employees—is not a good thing. The last thing anyone wants to do is come into an office situation to be nothing but the “bad cop.”

So where does being the adult in the room shake out? In this case, it didn’t favor me—my experience lost out to “authenticity,” i.e., someone closer to the age target of the site’s readers.

Ageism at the Office: Since When Is Experience Not an Asset?

But it left me thinking—was I going to have to pull a Liza in Younger to get the positions I wanted?

In the hit television show, the Liza character is a 40-something woman pretending to be a 28-year-old because she couldn’t get the job she wanted as a divorced mom reentering the workforce after a lengthy absence.

She lies to deal with ageism, gets a job as an assistant to someone her own (real) age, and is quickly promoted to take on a leadership role as well. She seems like a wunderkind to those around her, but, really, she’s a woman with the perspective and experience that comes with living and managing a family, home, and herself for 20 years. She’s clearly “the adult in the room,” though no one knows it but herself.

Was I going to have to pull a Liza in the hit TV show Younger to get the positions I wanted?

Thinking about the show, I was recently reminded of a job I’d had when I was 28. It was a corporate position unlike any I’d held prior. Half of the responsibilities were completely new and challenging. I was able to make it my own and show success that affected the bottom line and was actually recognized with internal awards for my work.

The other half of my job was something I viewed as mundane. Though it potentially affected the company’s business as much as my other responsibilities, I disliked doing it and, consequently, did not do it as well as I should have.

The 28-year old me didn’t have the sense to recognize that you always get the good stuff with the bad (or boring) in any position. I should have figured out how to get the work done by delegating, asking for help, or buckling down and doing it myself. I should have figured out that nothing lasts forever, even tasks you dislike.

In Praise of Adulthood

That’s the thing about experience and earning the right to be the “adult in the room”—the perspective gained over years of doing the good and bad tasks makes you more balanced, more patient, and way more open to the unknown because you know it could end up paying off, big time.

Knowing that you are being tapped for your knowledge and experience is a wonderful thing. With experience comes the opportunity to mentor and teach younger colleagues.

The bottom line here is that ageism—whether it impedes the old or the young—is a real drag for the women who experience it.

But it can be rewarding in both directions. To borrow a tenet from Montessori education methods, the younger can obviously learn from the older, and the elders can gain a fresh perspective and way of doing things from their younger compatriots.

The bottom line here is that ageism—whether it impedes the old or the young—is a real drag for the women who experience it, and make no mistake—we’re all experiencing it in some way. For the companies that could be benefitting from someone who has practical experience but who doesn’t fit the 28-year-old expectation, it’s a major miss. And for the 28-year-olds who know it all, my younger self included, patience really does pay off.

As for finding a place that appreciates my—let’s call it what it is—age, I’ve found a great gig that respects my knowledge and experience. Don’t be surprised when you see the title on my business card: “Adult in the Room.”

Read More: Fired! Bouncing Back from a Midlife Pink Slip

A version of this story was originally published in October 2018. 


Lisa Marsh loves writing about real women, living real lives, no matter what their age. She is the author of four books, is a dedicated dancer and FlyWheel spinner and the mother of two in New York City. Find her @LisaMarshWriter across platforms. 

Further Reading

Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder

Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace

This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

By Lisa Marsh


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