Sorry, you're how old?

We have all lied about our age at some time or other. Some do it to get a job, others to protect their status. But, there is one thing worse than lying about how old you are – and that's being found out

We've all done it, haven't we? Well most of us. Lied about our age – even if only to get into a nightclub aged 17 and three quarters. That ritual was a repeat feature in my youth, all the more so when, aged 20, I moved to America and was unable to order a glass of wine without my (fake) driving licence. Of course, inflating your age doesn't hold quite the same stigma as shaving the years off; now I find myself nearing that end of the spectrum. I have, at least, removed my date of birth from my Facebook account.

Much of this is vanity. But lying about your age has more practical benefits, too. Presumably. Otherwise why else would an anonymous Texan actress be suing both Amazon and the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for listing her age as 40? She is 40, by the way – she's just never told anyone. Now that the fact is out there, she feels that it is damaging her career – to the tune of $75,000 (£48,000) in compensation.

If the actress is right, and revealing her age really has damaged her career, it says as much about Hollywood's ageism as anything else. But we know that story. We've all heard the tales of actresses who pass out of their thirties and find roles drying up, particularly when their repertoire has tended to been dominated by the teen-targeting rom-com market. Similarly, for television presenters and news readers: think of Selina Scott and her £250,000 settlement with Five. Indeed, when it comes to showbusiness it seems that lying about your age can have real material benefit. "It is becoming increasingly obvious that age is an important part of getting a job," agrees PR supremo Max Clifford. "Broadcasters are aiming for a younger audience."

And it's not just women who suffer. Within music, there's as much pressure on the boys as the girls. Alex Kapranos, of Franz Ferdinand, was on the receiving end of more than a few snarky jibes when he revealed he was 30 at the time of their chart-topping "Take Me Out"; front men and singer-songwriters are routinely marketed as being younger than they really are.

Why? Well, one theory is that, since it is teenage girls whose tastes dictate the pop charts, you need to be within a certain bracket to appeal. But that pre-dates the rise of the Tesco CD, downloads and other audience-broadening factors. More likely is that music, whether you like it or not, continues to be seen as a young person's game. As one Independent music reviewer puts it: "If someone comes along at 32 and they've not made it yet, why should we suddenly care about them?" Certainly, rock'n'roll is a glamorous game – and the image of a gradually aging musician slogging round the urban toilet circuit isn't the best of compliments. Those who make it late in life – and admit it – are exceptions. When she burst on to the scene in the mid-Nineties Sheryl Crow was conspicuous in her repeated refusal to hide her age (she was 32).

But what about the rest of us? As a journalist, I'm all too familiar with interviewees who, asked their age, respond with a terse: "I'd rather not say." That old maxim "never ask a lady her age" still holds sway in the post-chivalrous age. Certainly, when it comes to romance, lying about age to appear more compatible is, if not necessarily advisable, not uncommon. One acquaintance told her would-be husband that she was 21, not 17, to lessen the age gap. When the birthday cards wishing her a happy 18th began to arrive, she laughed them off as a prank.

The columnist Liz Jones admits she chopped a few years off when she first met her husband. He was several years younger than her and she wanted to de-emphasise the gap. She was forced to fess up once they became engaged. Meanwhile in the world of online dating, forgetting a few birthdays is par for the course.

In the workplace, though, such fibs can take on a more sinister significance. With more that 2.6 million unemployed it's not, perhaps, all that surprising to find that up to a third of people admit to "embellishing" their CVs. And when it comes to lying about our age – just like actresses and musicians – we may well have something to gain.

According to one American think tank, the Urban Institute, younger employees are more likely to lose their jobs to redundancy. But when it comes to finding a new one, they've got the edge. Over 50s are a third less likely to find work than jobseekers aged 25-34. Over 62? You're 50 per cent less likely to be employed.

Of course, the benefits only matter so long as you're not found out. In an age when more and more of our lives are recorded online, the risk of discovery in all the greater. And if you are found out as a fraud, the consequences can be severe. "People don't realise how serious it is," explains Charlie Ryan, founder of The Recruitment Queen. "Some companies will understand – but they are few and far between. What happens to trust?"

Similarly, even for actresses and musicians, the potential downsides may well outweigh the advantage. "I'd never recommend any of my clients do it," says Clifford. "Because there will always be plenty of people out there who will say, 'hold on, I was at school with that person,' and ring up the papers." And if they do, the ridicule you face may be worse than telling the truth.

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