Are you “too old” to find work?

Are you on the “wrong side of 40,” as writer Lydia DePillis describes it in her piece in this week’s Washington Post story on ageism in the workplace?  Are you a “closeted old person,” as one person profiled describes herself?  In your quest for work, have you experienced this “ism?”

The story looks at baby boomers, and the difficult fight older people experience finding employment, and it’s stirred up a rousing discussion on my personal Facebook page–as well as a number of personal confessions.  (One friend wrote to me privately to say she was afraid to contribute to the conversation, for fear of calling attention to her age.)

When I posted the piece, I myself confessed that a recent visit to a former colleague at a major news outlet where I was hoping to land some work was met with a thud.  I knew staff jobs were few and far between, and was hoping to propose some ideas for freelance projects.  The response?  That I was likely “too old” to get my foot in that door.  My friend wasn’t being mean, and since he wasn’t in a capacity to hire, he wasn’t doing anything illegal; he was managing my expectations.  (And, for the record, he’s a decade older than me.)

Many lament that other forms of discrimination–sexual, racial, religious–would never fly in today’s work environments.   It may feel prevalent now for those of us on the “wrong side of 40,” but it isn’t new. I first witnessed this when my mother was downsized at the bank where she was a broker.  She’d been singled out for special training at age 57 in the first place especially because she was “mature” and a skilled, respected financial advisor whom older clients flocked to consult.  But years later, when she was deemed by a younger boss to be too old, she lost her position.  She considered filing a discrimination suit, but instead started her own practice.

illustration by Paul Blow/Washington Post

illustration by Paul Blow/Washington Post

Reinvention is one way around the roadblock of ageism, but it’s not for everyone; not all are wired to be entrepreneurial.  And yet the days of a cozy one-employer career with generous benefits and a gold watch, the experience of my elderly aunt who worked as a secretary for 50 years at an insurance company–are gone.   What’s in between?  We’re about to find out.

One commenter wrote:  “I can’t even count the number of times my middle-aged peers have said, uncritically and with full acceptance, “how could I find a job now, at my age?’” Another offered this: “Just a random fact: the majority of lawsuits filed against the agency that I work for, The National Agricultural Statistics Service, are age related lawsuits. It’s a VERY big deal here and I would guess elsewhere within the federal government.”

How did this happen, when once upon a time, experience was a valued commodity?  Another writer, an artist in her fifties, had this to offer:

When we entered the workforce, “seniority” was dying. Previously, the older workers had been at the company a long time and got promotions based on loyalty and alleged deep knowledge of the department and its needs. As our generation began working, the MBAs began taking jobs you used to have to move up into, and nobody got promoted from being, say, an engineer or graphic designer to management, not even in their own department. While the previous generation looked up to the elders, we saw opportunities to pad our resumes with leadership titles that substituted for the higher pay we would have preferred then split to a better job at another company. The whole structure that made older workers valuable and secure had broken down, and all job security disappeared. Now it’s just well-connected kids bringing their prep-school friends into departments designed around their whims and filling in the edges with technical experts who they can pay by the day as needed. It means nobody gets to age gracefully because we’re all hustling to pay our dues well into later middle age or till we die trying. Nicely played, Reagan Youth.

I look forward to talking more about this issue in a future episode of Gracefully.