Americans have always coveted youth in all of its spunky, hungry, gorgeous potential. It’s likely rooted in our pioneering spirit of embracing risk and seizing opportunity. Old people didn’t jump into covered wagons enthusiastically bushwhacking their way West across the unforgiving frontier — young folks did that.
But today our cultural crush on all things young and millennial is coming at the expense of our experienced workers.
The irony is that in many ways we’ve become a more accepting and sensitive workforce. Hiring managers are now trained to recognize unconscious bias and overt discrimination that hurt women, LGBTQ people and minorities. But age bias, while glaring, doesn’t attract the same level of urgency as other forms of discrimination.
And it’s starting earlier than ever.
Walk into any tech start-up or hot, digital media company and you’ll be hard pressed to find many people over 40. At my last job, my boss was 29, and I’m fairly certain that out of a growing company of 400, I was the second oldest. How do I know this? I became obsessed, trolling LinkedIn profiles and investigating anyone who I thought could possibly have graduated from college in the early 1990s.
Yes, there are industries that seem largely immune to ageism. In areas of finance, law and academia, experience is respected. Many of us find comfort when a peek into the cockpit reveals a pilot graying at the temples. And deep grooves on a surgeon’s forehead is evidence of a veteran in the ER. Those biological badges of age give us peace.
But in the start-up space, we fetishize youth. And in the industries that are evolving to keep pace with the digital world, including media, advertising, publishing, communications, entertainment and even retail, age discrimination is rampant. It’s not only a cultural issue about fitting into a tribe of young, agile, digital natives, but it’s also economic: You may be too darn expensive to keep around.
What used to arise mid-career was a sense of security and financial comfort, but now the disruption of the workforce has jolted many 40-somethings into scrambling to figure out their next moves. Yes, some choose to pivot into different industries, but others are forced to make a change — often taking lower-level jobs with lower salaries.
“There is no such thing as a linear career path anymore,” says Karen Shnek Lippman, managing director at the Koller Search Partners, a recruiting firm in New York. “The only career goal you should be focusing on right now is staying relevant.”
In August 2014, I lost my freelancing job as the Director of Content at Grey, a global, 100-year-old advertising agency, often referenced in Mad Men. Because Grey slashed my position, I was searching for a new full-time gig. I became anxious to join one of the bright, shiny digital media start-ups in New York City, partly out of fear that if I didn’t work at a hot tech-based company, I would soon become a dinosaur. As a Gen Xer, I felt my professional currency was quickly fading, and I needed to switch gears so I could sparkle … or at the very least, find a job.
I interviewed at a small social media agency where a dozen under-30-somethings sat shoulder-to-shoulder on ergonomic chairs, huddled around an eco-friendly reclaimed oak table. Macs lit up the room as an Irish Setter meandered down the narrow aisles looking to be scratched. In a makeshift meeting room, the bearded millennial interviewing me studied my résumé on his laptop, refusing a paper copy on ethical grounds.
“We like to save trees around here,” he said. I smiled and shoved my offensive wad of resumes and bios back into my bag. Old school, I invariably carry multiple hard copies to interviews.
“I see that you were a press secretary on Capitol Hill,” he began.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, excited that he noticed my first jobs out of college — jobs that I always thought were impressive and important.
“Well, the way we operate here is that we have good relationships with the media,” he sniffed. “It concerns me that you worked in politics. I wouldn’t want you slamming down the phone and pissing people off.”
Until now, my political experience had opened doors and given me a certain gravitas and credibility. The Hill was the Google of the Gen X generation, paving the way for big-time careers. After Capitol Hill, I had a smorgasbord of interesting jobs, but this guy was put off by my political background from the mid-1990s.
As I slunk out the door — only after grabbing a handful of kale chips and a coconut water — I realized that this struck at a bigger issue. I, a solid Gen Xer, who came up during the age of Walkmans and Diet Coke, was more disconnected from this millennial hiring manager than I had imagined. Walking down Fifth Avenue, I realized my personal career pivot was going to be harder than I expected. I needed to hone my story. I needed to repackage my skillset. I also wondered if I needed to invest in Botox and delete my college graduation date on my resume.
Ultimately, I did get a job at a bright and shiny shop, but it didn’t last for long. After four months, coincidentally the week my new team started — the team I had hired — I was told I was too expensive. The morning we parted ways, my boss told me that she could hire three people for my salary. “We’re not firing you,” she said sweetly. “We’re just separating for now.” It was positioned as if we were mutually uncoupling. Except it wasn’t mutual. Dan Lyons writes about this in his best-selling book, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. In the start-up world, when you got fired, it was called a “graduation.” “Team just letting you know that X has graduated and we’re all excited to see how she uses her superpowers in her next big adventure,” Lyons writes. He describes a cruel culture in which people are treated like disposable widgets and fired on a whim.
In modern workplaces with all-you-can-eat organic snacks and Belgian beer gardens, it turns out that old fashioned job security is as retro as the company’s Xerox machine. To stay relevant, we are told to take on “side hustles” — projects that can grow our skills, expand our networks and maybe even bring in some revenue. The days of having one job and one reliable skillset have disappeared in the gig economy. “There are so many hybrid roles right now that require someone with multiple skillsets,” Shnek Lippman says. “You have to be ready in different function areas than you are used to and embrace it, because it’s the only way to survive.”
Interestingly, at a time when we’re told we must be agile to compete with the next generation, there is another quieter movement that is reaching out to older, female workers. Law firms, management consulting firms and investment banks that have bled female talent over the past decade or so, losing women to motherhood and inflexible work schedules, are now trying to fold women back into the workforce.
Culturally and economically, it has become an imperative to create more diversity at the top, and there are compelling business reasons to make that happen. Studies show that companies with more women in management and leadership positions perform better.
Online platforms such as Après and Landit are collaborating with companies to bring women — many of them over 35, GenX ladies — back to work. These companies are recognizing that the experience, gravitas and loyalty that comes with older workers is exactly what they need to grow their business.
There was a time when women were warned not to mention their children at work. Flaunting a family could risk the perception of not being fully committed to the job. But progressive work cultures today boast of their nursing rooms and paid paternity leave. Having babies is trendy — look no further than to our reigning pop-culture queen Beyoncé, whose announcement that she’s pregnant with twins broke the internet a few weeks ago. But it only applies to new moms. Mention having a teenager, like I did during a work discussion about Snapchat, and that’s like announcing you’ve got one foot in the grave. I immediately regretted my comment after several young eyebrows furrowed in disbelief and audible gasps were heard. “But you don’t look that old,” a 23-year-old on my team said.
Americans over 55 years old will comprise over a quarter of the workforce by 2019, according to the National Council on Aging. Ironically, we may be a nation that is simultaneously feeling younger and older. So while legacy companies are expressing their newfound commitment to bringing female talent back in, all industries need to take another look at the over-40 crowd.
Whether we have babies or teenagers or backgrounds in politics or work experience that dates back to the ’90s, we shouldn’t have to mask our age or experience. We should own it.
Wendy Sachs is the author of Fearless and Free: How Smart Women Pivot and Relaunch their Careers.