“I’m too old for this”: valid concern, or not?

I hear, with some regularity, from freelance translators–or aspiring freelancers–who worry that they’re “too old for this.” Depending on the individual, “this” might mean:

  • Starting a freelance business in general
  • Pursuing higher-level clients
  • Pursuing a new specialization or niche (i.e. transitioning from translation to interpreting or vice versa)
  • Adding something like a new language to their range of services

Of course, “old” is relative. For the record, I’m 46. I started freelancing when I was 30, and I know freelancers who are still going strong in their 70s and even a few in their 80s. One individual in ATA who is mentally sharper than I am is north of 85. But still, this “too old” thing keeps cropping up.

Main question: Does your brain still work? This sounds laughable, but I include it here for perspective. If “too old” is on your radar screen, you probably are too old to be lots of things. An Olympic gymnast. A fighter pilot. An organ transplant surgeon. But a translator’s main asset is mental acuity. Bottom line, if your brain still works, I’m reasonably certain you’ll be OK. You’re not too old for this.

Secondary point: the time will pass anyway, so you may as well use it productively. I thought about this when I took up playing the lute (a pretty bleeping difficult instrument to learn to play, as it turns out!) at 42. When I asked a musician-translator-friend whether she thought I was too old to learn to play lute, she said, “Let’s say you give yourself 20 years to get really good at music. You’ll be 62. But guess what…with any luck, you’ll be 62 someday anyway, so why not put the time to good use.” The same can be said of freelancing. Let’s say you’re currently 60. If you live in a developed country and are in reasonably good health, statistically you have something like an 80% chance of living at least 20 more years. I think that’s long enough for a viable freelance career, definitely.

Tertiary point: working as a freelancer protects you–to a large extent–from real or perceived age discrimination in a salaried job. The “grey ceiling” is a real thing in the salaried world. I found this article from The Balance pretty sobering. Essentially, study after study has found zero relationship between age and job performance. But if you’re over 45 (45! Not 70!), you’re less likely to be hired, more likely to be laid off and more likely to take longer than average to find a new job. If you want or need to work past the usual retirement age, that alone could be a good reason to freelance.

However…

Starting on the bottom rung of any profession requires you to hustle. When I launched my freelance business in 2002, I was determined to make it work. I really wanted to a) work from home while my daughter was little, and b) make a healthy living without moving to a major city. Failure was not an option, so I hustled. I worked nights and weekends. I sent handwritten thank you note after handwritten thank you note. I did informational interviews that led nowhere. I had coffee or lunch with anyone who seemed like a remotely promising contact. I worked for the borderline-lousy clients other people didn’t want. I spent two years in the application process for an FBI Contract Linguist position that required an hour commute each way–not to mention the polygraph test. It worked, but it was tiring. And whether you’re launching your freelance business at 22 or 75, you have to be ready to hustle.

Older freelancers have to be aware of stereotypes. In our profession, you may encounter the stereotype that older freelancers are not good with technology, for example. As an older freelancer, I would advise you to be a geek guru. Be the technology expert; be the person clients and colleagues come to for help when they have problems with translation-related software. Beat that stereotype before it even gets out of the gate. Again, learning how to use technology is just learning a new skill; you can do it.

On the plus side, you can capitalize on positive stereotypes of older freelancers. They’re out there, so exploit them. Many clients think of older freelancers as more stable and dependable, more self-aware, more patient, and less dramatic than their younger counterparts. One client even told me, “My favorite translators were all born before 1980.” Hey–take it. Emphasize to your potential clients how easy it will be to work with you.

Be prepared to be older than a lot of the people you work for. This is one difference I’ve noticed in my mid-forties. For some time, I’ve been older than the average entry-level employee on the client side. In recent years, I’ve moved to another level. Example: I work at a co-working office, and I’ve noticed that when one of the office twentysomethings gives me a recommendation for something–a movie, a restaurant, a place to buy jeans–it’s from their compendium of “stuff old people like.” Even at 46, I’m no longer anything like a peer to them. Realistically, this puts a different spin on your marketing efforts. About a year and a half ago, I lost a major direct client when they hired an in-house translator. For the first time in a long time, I actively looked for work. And I’ll be honest; the age thing was a little weird. Hustling for work from people six or seven years older than my teenage daughter was a new experience–an experience that ultimately worked out and resulted in some excellent new clients, but that took a bit of a mindset shift on my part.

If you’re panicking about the “too old” question, I recommend that you:

  • Try not to panic. Seriously, if your brain still works, you’ll be OK.
  • Try not to compulsively make a big deal about your age. People who see you or talk to you will have a vague sense of how old you are. That’s fine; you don’t need to belabor it with a steady stream of, “When I was your age…” and “Back in the typewriter era…” remarks.
  • Be aware that as you get older, everyone else looks younger. Those people who look like they’re 12 are actually 27, and are in a position to give you work.
  • Become a technology expert if you’re not one already. That will go a long way toward defeating any clients’ concerns about working with you.
  • Embrace the fact that you are probably more self-aware, more patient, less sensitive, and more reliable than you were when you were 22. I know that I sure am.
  • Bonus tip: When clients think you’ve been freelancing for 30 years because you’re over 50, take it. A friend of mine went back to school in her early 50s for a totally different career. She had mostly thought of the downsides–how many working years would she have left once she finished? But in the end, there was an upside: people automatically assumed she was a seasoned expert since she had grey hair. Again: take it, and make the most of it.

Readers, thoughts on the “too old for this” question?

18 Responses to ““I’m too old for this”: valid concern, or not?”
  1. Jonathan Hine November 6, 2017
    • Corinne McKay November 7, 2017
  2. Claire Cox November 6, 2017
    • Corinne McKay November 7, 2017
  3. palomnik November 7, 2017
    • Corinne McKay November 7, 2017
  4. Edith van der Have-Raats November 7, 2017
    • Corinne McKay November 8, 2017
  5. Alison Hughes November 7, 2017
    • Corinne McKay November 8, 2017
  6. Trish Will November 7, 2017
    • Corinne McKay November 8, 2017
  7. Christian Nielsen-Palacios November 8, 2017
    • Corinne McKay November 8, 2017
  8. Edith van der Have-Raats November 8, 2017
    • Corinne McKay November 8, 2017
  9. Paige Dygert November 8, 2017
    • Corinne McKay November 8, 2017

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