Fred, a casting director in Los Angeles, recently watched a friend grow younger before his eyes. Repeatedly.
"I was standing right there while he was talking to people and watched his age fluctuate between 34 and 38 in one night," he says. "He's actually 42."
When Fred (not his real name) confronted him, his friend launched into a long, convoluted excuse about how, because he works in the music industry, he has to keep his age fluid so younger people can relate to him. Fred has a more succinct explanation for why his friend lies about his birth year.
"He thinks if he wasn't rich by the time he was 40, he [is] a failure," he says. "It's so sad to watch."
Getting caught lying about your age might be as embarrassing as a bad toupee, but when it comes to getting older, men aren't always inhibited by shame. So when they start to worry that they're too old to get laid, keep their jobs, or blend in at Bonnaroo, some guys decide to hover around 34 (or whatever number they consider the magic one) for a few years—and hope that no one asks any probing questions.
The U.K.'s Sunday Telegraph recently revealed that James Blunt has long been identified in the press as being three years younger than he actually is (currently 34) —an attempt on the part of the pop heartthrob and his PR people, the paper contended, to make his early thirties last as long as the platinum sales of his first album. Nelly was named one of Teen People's "25 Hottest Stars Under 25" twice—and it was later reported that he was 27 and 28 when the issues came out. Houston Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada was busted last year: It was discovered that he was two years older than his listed age in the team's media guide.
You can blame this strain of Peter Pan syndrome, at least in part, on the overachieving twentysomething techies of the past decade: guys like Jim Benedetto, Jerry Yang, and Mark Zuckerberg, who at 24 was named by Forbes magazine "the world's youngest self-made billionaire." Their faces still plump with baby fat, these guys demolished the notion of climbing the career ladder. Thanks to them, certain benchmarks aren't the province of the gray-templed anymore—you can be barely old enough to drink and already have a six-figure salary and a second home.
"The most prevalent and forgivable reason men lie about their age is professional insecurity," says K. Cooper Ray, the writer behind the etiquette blog SocialPrimer: Manners, Conversation, Style & Handling Your Liquor. "You hit 40, so you fudge that you're 39, because you see all the new young Turks under you with their fabulous careers."
Dora, a journalist in her thirties who covers (and dates within) San Francisco's silicon fishbowl, says she can't help but judge men based on their age. "When I meet a guy who's a tech genius in San Francisco and hear he's 30," she says, "I think, 'Eh, he can't be that good.'"
Being considered a failure for not having hit the peak of your career by age 30 can make even wunderkinder nervous enough to lie. Tom Anderson, a cofounder of MySpace, was lambasted last year for stating online that he was 32—in fact, he's in his late thirties. Networking sites, of course, are where the most flagrant age deflation among men thrives. "This guy I know who is only 35 says he is 24 on his MySpace profile," says one female devotee of the site. "Obviously he did it to get dates." But pandering to youth culture is par for the course, even when you're not trying to get laid. Doug, a married guy from Arizona who's in his mid-thirties and plays guitar and sings in a band, says, "When I say I'm 25 in my profile, I get 10,000 hits. When I put it back to 34, I get like 212."
"It's always interesting to see how age is listed on profiles on Facebook," says David, a designer at a major Internet company who, though he's not yet 30, is keenly aware of age sensitivity among his male colleagues. "It's always 'May 3,' not 'May 3, 1972.' No one lists years unless they are in their early twenties."
Age manipulation is the kind of lying that takes finesse and delicacy. Women have perfected it, having endured decades of cultural pressure—and propaganda from a billion-dollar cosmetics industry—to stay 29 forever. They are discreet, assuming that the people they're misrepresenting themselves to are in on the deception: Here's the deal—if I look good, you don't ask how old I am. Online-dating researchers at the University of California-Berkeley have found that men, conversely, lie brazenly about their ages because they think they can get away with it, using the same logic that brought the world comb-overs and two-inch lifts.
In the end, pretending to be 23 when you're 42 is just gateway behavior—a move toward joining that creepy club of guys in their late thirties and forties who look like walking testaments to the wonders of lat pulls, dermabrasion, and Cialis. You can spot them a mile away—wearing flip-flops, Abercrombie & Fitch shirts, and cargo pants, plumped and pumped up into some non-age. So if you're tempted to start airbrushing away a few birthdays, ask yourself the same question you'd ask those guys if it weren't impolite: Excuse me—whom exactly do you think you're fooling?
THE LYING GAME
Some age misrepresentation—like pretending not to get a Laura Palmer reference—is verbal. Some is visual. Here are a few props certain fortyish men use to try to read younger.
The Result: BRAZEN DECEPTION!