How Looking 'Young' Can Affect Your Career

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Being able to pass for a teenager when you’re in your mid-late 20s has its benefits; on a good day I can still talk my way into getting a student discount, and people can be more forgiving when you mess up. But there’s a downside to looking young, too – sometimes it can feel like people don’t take you as seriously in the workplace.

While working as a commissioning editor in my late 20s, I was regularly mistaken for a student on work experience, which isn’t helpful when you’re trying to impress senior colleagues, and I felt conscious of it when meeting interviewees or representing my company. But do we really get judged differently if we look younger than we are?

Research has shown that the way we look does affect the way people behave towards us in the workplace – we’re treated better if we’re attractive and, according to one study, the taller you are, the more you earn. Hannah, 34, works in journalism and says that during her 20s, looking young and being only 5ft 1in was frustrating and did affect the way people treated her. “One time I hosted an event and a senior man in his 60s assumed I was a waitress and asked me to get a drink for him,” she says. “Another time, at a press event, I was asked what I was studying at university. I was 27 and a deputy editor at the time.”

Stacey, 28, who works in marketing and oversees corporate finance events, says people make comments about how young she looks every week. “Clients have often asked colleagues if I’m an intern, or if I’m still at school, and it’s really embarrassing,” she says. “I’ve got six or seven years of work experience, so it kind of takes away from that.”

lots of cultures place a respect value on age, so if they think you’re older, they’ll respect you more

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But beyond the odd social faux pas or case of mistaken identity, can looking young affect your career? Dr. Joan Harvey, psychologist and senior lecturer at Newcastle University, says we constantly judge people based on nonverbal signals, including how we look. “It’s what we in psychology call interpersonal perception,” she says. “Whether you like it or not, you’re communicating with people on every level. And lots of cultures place a respect value on age, so if they think you’re older, they’ll respect you more.”

We also make judgements based on stereotypes, says Jonny Gifford, adviser in organisational behaviour at the CIPD, who has researched bias in the workplace. “When we take in information we make mental shortcuts and fill in the blanks, based on assumptions,” he says. “It enables us to live our lives, but it’s a source of massive bias.” Part of this means picking up on whether we think people fit a certain role, Gifford says. “So if you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to work out whose point of view to consider, it’s very likely that perceived age will come into that.”

On top of this, just being conscious of looking different can have an impact on our behaviour. “If you’re a noticeably young person and you have that reinforced by the way people treat you, then it may knock your confidence and affect how effective you are in your role,” says Gifford.

Neha, 27, works in digital media and says feeling conscious of looking young while in senior positions affected her behaviour. “It made me feel I had to justify my position more,” she says. “You have to work harder for people to take you seriously.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. Hannah also says she had to force herself to be more outgoing at work. “Otherwise I could see I was going to be written off,” she says. “But it’s left me in a better position now.”

You can absolutely work being small to your advantage, says Michael Guttridge, a business and coaching psychologist. “Often people who are less tall are seen as little dynamos or bundles of energy, and you can play to that,” he says. It’s all about impression management, Harvey agrees. “Learning these skills can negate the effects of looking young,” she says. “If you want to appear confident, keep your back straight, your shoulders down and your head upright, as though you’re walking with books on your head. That changes your posture and makes you look more confident. Plus people will realise you’re older eventually, if you just let it come out in the wash.”

And if all else fails, at least it gives us something extra to celebrate on our birthdays. “I have to say, I really love being older,” says Hannah. “A lot of people hate ageing, and really rail against it on every birthday, but I don’t feel like that at all. As soon as I turned 30 I just felt like everything got so much better, and it’s not just maturity, it’s how people treat you. I don’t look as young for my age as I used to and I prefer it, I really do.”

We should embrace a few grey hairs and wrinkles – but unfortunately we may miss the student discount in the process.
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