Youth power: you gotta have it

Once you were the office baby - now there are layers of bright babies under you. Everywhere, youth reigns supreme. Worried? You bet, says Hester Lacey

Life Begins at 40? Hah. Don't count on it. Thinking in terms of beginning anything at 40 is ludicrously hopeful these days. If you aspire to money and status, and you aren't a roaring success by your late thirties, you may as well forget it; it will be simply too late. The role models for the Nineties are a terrifyingly youthful bunch, and now, of course, even one of the ultimate bastions of maturity, the Tory party, has fallen to the cult of youth. Poor, fusty old Ken Clarke, 56, was pipped to the post by William Hague, a stripling 20 years his junior.

Last week, caring young world leaders Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, in between discussing saving the planet for the children, polished their groovy, fun-loving images by turning up to the Denver G7 Summit country and western barbecue dressed up in cowboy gear. Bill may be 50 but he knows very well how vital it is to project that youthful glow - and hang out with others who are doing the same. Simultaneously, Helmut Kohl and Boris Yeltsin proved themselves sad old has-beens by sniffily ignoring the complimentary cowboy boots and Stetson hats.

Youth reigns more supreme than ever, and not only in politics. The finance and business world is choked with young geniuses. Whiz kids like Ivan Massow, 30 (a well-known millionaire financial consultant by his mid-20s), Elizabeth Murdoch, 29 (who runs BSkyB) or Oliver Peyton (who has the trendy restaurant scene sewn up at the age of 33) are barely the tip of the iceberg.

Media? Piers Morgan took over the Mirror at the age of 30. The British art world is seething with enfants terribles - Mona Hatoum, Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst (who racked up a Turner Prize at 30). Stella McCartney, 25, went straight from college to design for the French couture house Chloe. Novelists start particularly early. Bidisha recently published her first novel, Seahorses, at 18; Alex Garland, 26, is a huge cult success with his first novel The Beach; Rachel Cusk, 30, has just published her third. And pop stars are actually pre-pubescent; the youngest member of chart-topping teeny group Hanson is 11 years old.

Those who have slipped past the vital late-thirties mark are either frantically stressing their inner coolness or madly rubbing shoulders with the young and trendy. Prime Minister Tony Blair (Anthony? hey, no way, kids) is remarkably youthful at 44, but he still takes great pains to stress his un-fuddy-duddiness: first names in the cabinet, jeans at the weekend, and "I am part of the rock and roll generation" soundbites. Meanwhile, Mr Blair's colleague Peter Mandelson (43) is still doggedly shaking a leg at the Ministry of Sound. Even the Prince of Wales (49) submitted last month to the grim indignity of having to meet a bunch of tuppenny- ha'penny pop starlets at a gala concert to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Prince's Trust. Ginger Spice, who can currently do no wrong, promptly pinched his bottom and gleefully informed the world that it is "wobbly" without the slightest fear of ending up in the Tower for treason.

With so many glittering examples of feisty youth-power in front of them, who can blame thirty and even twentysomethings for being nervous about what they have to live up to? Those who do well early can do very well indeed, but the downside is that there is always someone even younger snapping at your heels. It is particularly galling when your boss is younger than you. "One of my superiors is only 27 and it makes me feel inadequate," sighs Robina, 30, who works in marketing. "He refers to the rest of the team as the brats, as if he feels he has to keep ramming it down our throats that he is younger. The other day, he went out and bought us all sweets. He is a troll-bastard from hell. And he does make mistakes; I don't think there is any substitute for experience."

An office crammed with young pretenders means that rivalry is rife. "The partners would say things like 'Junior lawyers are like light bulbs - you screw one out and screw another one in'," says Vanessa, 27, who recently quit her job as a lawyer to move to another city post. "After your two years as a trainee, there is a big cull - a lot don't get permanent jobs. Then there is another cull if you don't make partner by your mid-thirties - where I used to work there were very few people left over around 40 who weren't partners. So, it's very pressured. You work a ten-hour day and often end up having to work through the night. There is a lot of jockeying for position."

Outside the hierarchy of the City things are no better. "You work and work," says Tim, 26, a television researcher. "Everything else goes by the board. I have got my eye open for a move upwards. You have to keep moving. If you're still stuck on a junior salary by the time you're 30 you'll stay on it forever. You see people who have obviously got as far as they are

going to go before even their 30th birthday." "I used to love being the baby of the office, watching all those old 28 and 29 year olds moaning away. I used to be the office voice of youth," says one (relatively) young journalist. "Now, I'm 29 myself, there's another couple of layers of bright babies under me, and hundreds of thirtysomethings floating about, all struggling."

If you have the right date of birth on your CV, naturally all this is good news. "We are placing more and more bright young things in senior roles," says Jeff Grout, UK managing director of Robert Half International, the financial recruitment specialists. "For a 32-year-old in sales you can be talking amazing money, perhaps pounds 150,000; we have placed 26-year- old accountants straight out of training onto pounds 40,000. But 95 per cent of our clients specify a very narrow age band; 25 to 30, or 27 to 35, or very often under 40." Once past that age, it's tough. Jeff Grout believes that age discrimination in the British job market is worse than in any other industrialised country; in the US, for example, legislation forbids specifying an age ceiling for any post, and candidates do not have to put their ages on their CVs. "There is a certain age beyond which people are suddenly seen as less flexible, less energetic, less trainable, less comfortable with information technology. It used to be around 40 but now it is as low as 36. It's wrong to use age as a bench mark - well, I'm 44 and I'm not over the hill!"

Earlier this month, Howard Davies, the Bank of England's deputy governor, warned the Employers Forum on Age annual conference that the average age of the population is rising each year while the age of workers is falling. "It is a big-scale economic problem," he said. "Each time there is a downturn the older workforce tend to be shaken out and when the upturn comes they don't get back in." And just how old are these sad, unwanted wrinklies? More than 22 per cent of the available male workforce aged over 45 can't find work.

Few fortysomethings would consider themselves past it. But, just supposing you are approaching the magical 36th year cut-off, what steps can you take to keep yourself looking as though you can still keep your end up in an office full of hungry 24-year-old graduates? Mary Spillane, founder and head of CMB Image Consultants, is an expert de-frumper. "Nobody wants a boring, dreary, slow-moving person around the office," she warns. "They want someone who's in step with today, who is fresh and current. Many people get stuck on a plateau - they start looking middle-aged and lumpy, like someone's old aunt or mum. No-one wants to work with their mum, they want to work with a colleague. You don't want to get stuck with an imprint that says 'My prime was in 1989'."

First of all, stay (or get) in shape, she advises. Then, take a hard, cold look at your image. "If you're a man, you shouldn't be wearing your hair the same way it was five years ago. Shirts and ties have changed. Women might have their own style, but they should keep putting new twists on it. Try a new hairdresser. Ask yourself 'Are my shoes mumsy? Is my handbag a bit sad?' Don't copy the younger ones exactly, you won't be able to carry it off, but do keep an eye on what they're doing." And make strenuous attempts not to turn into a grinding old bore. You may be proud of your long experience, but shut up about it. "Never say 'I remember 12 years ago we did this or that'. No-one is interested in what happened 12 years ago," advises Spillane. "And don't become too middle-aged and lose all your spontaneity. Come in on Monday morning and say you've been to the theatre not that you've been to the supermarket as usual. It's not about trying to be someone you're not, just about having something to talk about." All this, she says, should extend your shelf-life.

And if the news from the office is grim for the over-thirties, things could be worse. Some careers are even more perishable. Even the Spice Girls, high priestesses of Girl Power, were caught lopping off a few crucial not-sufficiently-girly years. One minute "Baby" Spice Emma Bunton was 18; the next she was celebrating her 21st birthday. "You can lie about your age," she told one interviewer. "I lie about mine all the time." And perhaps that's the only real answer to the whole vexed question.

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