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Amy Gutman

Amy Gutman

Why Birthdays Matter (And Why They Don’t)

The reasons I won't give my age are not what you might think.


As I prepared for the interview, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to say and how to say it. What aspects of my Plan B Nation journey should I focus on? What would listeners find interesting? What would they find helpful?

One thing I wasn’t too worried about was being caught off guard. I’d already written about unemployment for the mega website Salon. The facts of my story were already out there. Or so I thought.

“How old are you?” The question came at the end of the interview, almost an afterthought.

I didn’t answer right away. I realized that I didn’t want to say.

“Is my age really important?” I finally asked (or something equally lame).

At the time, I couldn’t have told you why I balked at this question. I just knew that I felt strangely committed to holding back The Number. And if I was unclear myself, my interviewer was baffled. “You talk publicly about unemployment and AA, but you don’t want to give your age?”

I had to admit she had a point, but that didn’t seem to sway me.

It took some time for me to piece together what was going on here. The fact is, age has consequences. These are less apparent when our lives are settled, with the big questions of love and work at least temporarily resolved. But if you’ve been on a dating website, or applied for a job lately, you’ll know what I’m talking about. After a certain point, numbers rule us out far more often than they rule us in.

But even more significant—at least for me—is the issue of how age defines us as normal, or, well not. Our cultural assumptions around age are deep and pervasive. The “stage theory” pioneered by Erik H. Erikson and popularized by Gail Sheehy in her blockbuster 1974 bestseller Passages is premised on the notion that our lives move through predictable stages that correlate with our ages. “The Trying Twenties,” “The Deadline Decade” (that’s your thirties, y’all!), “The Flourishing Forties,” “The Flaming Fifties”—Sheehy neatly labeled what are increasingly, for many of us, messy realities.

The more I think about it, perhaps the biggest reason I resist being defined by age is that the train of associations feels so powerfully misleading. For those of us whose lives have followed unconventional patterns—for me that means not getting married, not having kids, and pursuing a career path more meandering than directed—age can tend to put the focus on what we haven’t done rather than what we have (which for me includes, among other things, designing and co-founding the Mississippi Teacher Corps, writing and publishing two novels, practicing law, living in places ranging from the Mississippi Delta to Manhattan, and now thinking long and deeply about the issues I’m exploring in this blog.)

And yet, despite everything I’ve just said, I do pay attention to birthdays—though for very different reasons than I did when I was younger.

For me, birthdays have become a point of reckoning, a marker in the steady progression of days that helps me take stock. As I’ve written before, I’m someone who tends to have a hard time appreciating how far I’ve traveled and what I’ve done. I tend to focus on “what next?” rather than “what then?” Birthdays help counter that. Like the New Year or any other regular marker—and the more, the better, I say—they offer an opportunity both to appreciate progress and to look ahead. (For me, this always involves a rambling foray through my trusty desk diaries.)

This past year: So much! Starting this blog, for one big thing. Writing for Salon, the Chicago Tribune, SecondAct (where I have a new bi-monthly column), and now, Psychology Today. Optioning my second novel for film. Designing and leading a writing workshop for foster kids. Picking blueberries. Making pesto. Hiking the Seven Sisters. Training for a 5K. Making some really good friends and strengthening ties with old ones.

Oh, and for the record, I’m about to turn 52. I really don’t mind giving my age: I just don’t want to lead with it.