Personal Experiences Depict Prejudiced Reality.
I’ve been hesitant to write about job-related “ageism,” defined by Merriam-Webster as simply “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly.” As a 64-year-old seeking some kind of part-time or full-time work in the content development job market (writing, editing, researching, designing, publishing), I felt it would not be a wise decision to complain about all the job opportunities I applied for but was not even getting interviewed for, despite that I have more than 30 years of solid experience and a host of knowledge and skills that have been fine-tuned over the years. Firing off ageism complaints surely would not serve any good purpose.
The Logic of Not Being Considered
At the same time, I felt a certain understanding as to why I wasn’t getting any serious considerations from potential employers. Many younger folks, I reasoned, probably have more of an aptitude for content development that hits on the interests of the large combined marketplace of GenXers, Millennials, and GenZers, through their own first-hand experiences, than some old Boomer guy. Plus, wouldn’t it be wiser for a prospective employer to hire a younger person for a content development job simply to develop them into a proper and long-standing employee? Additionally, most content development positions are not exactly like STEM jobs, where high-skilled candidates are in demand. The market is flooded with a wide choice of talented, creative grads who can take on content development positions in which they can learn the ropes relatively quickly.
So, it seemed to make sense that I was consistently being totally ignored for jobs I applied for, even when I felt confident that my qualifications and skills were an absolute perfect fit. The conventional thinking that old folks are too set in their ways to change and out of touch with the younger generations could be the primary reason for being passed up. I can imagine an employer thinking along those lines, and I reasoned that even I might feel that way if I were the person ultimately in charge of hiring.
Deliberate Ageism Happens
But then my thinking changed when I started having blatant ageism experiences during my extensive job-hunting expeditions over the past year. I won’t name the companies where I experienced ageism, other than to say I made it to the interview process a few times only to be quickly rejected without good reason, and I was hired for one temp position that I held for several months until the employer decided to advertise for a new hire to do the work I was already doing for them at a very high quality. Instead of keeping me on as a permanent employee who had already learned the ropes, they hired a novice, much younger candidate with about one-tenth of my experience, communication skills, and know-how. That temp experience felt like a boldfaced example of ageism – it was an ageism incident that seemed provable, at least from my perspective. But, there really wasn’t anything I could do about it, except move on and keep trying, maybe taking a different job-hunting strategy. I suppose I could file some sort of complaint, but what good would that do?
For some reason I keep thinking about this famous Steve Jobs quote: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people, so they can tell us what to do.” That puts everything I think about this ageism theme into one clear sentence. Perhaps that is the best reason why an employer should take a chance with an older hire – so they can have someone with beaucoup experience tell them what they really need to know. Not in a bossy way, but through kind suggestions . . .
A Commencement Speech for All Ages
I’m not the biggest fan of Steve Jobs, who was also known to be a mercurial leader. But he’s on record for some very wise proclamations, such as his Stanford 2005 commencement speech, which is timeless, in my opinion. It’s the perfect speech for any job seeker at any age.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” he said to the Stanford grads. “You can only connect them looking backward. So you have to have trust the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” I find it easy to feel this way at 64.
Jobs also talked about when he was fired from Apple and started to pursue other interests: “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” I feel similar at this new stage of my early old age life, as well, although I can’t imagine reaching the heights of a creative endeavor like Pixar.
Finally, Jobs said, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” True at any time in your life . . .
The Sad Truth
Despite all these grand statements that give one hope and inspiration, the cold reality of not earning or having enough financial security in your retirement years is hard and debilitating. Unfortunately, millions of old adults are in this kind of sinking boat. According to most up-to-date figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 7.1 million adults ages 65 and older lived in poverty in 2016 (14.5 percent of total adults 65 and over). Who are they?
According to the Center for American Progress, most elderly poor are women, people of color, and people living in rural areas. Some of the causes of poverty include the dramatically increasing costs for decent health care, consistently rising energy bills and rents, increased isolation among low-income folks who do not have access to transportation services, and predatory lending practices.
I would add ageism to that list of causes. The need for millions of people to find some way to supplement their social security benefits is real. Being shut out of job opportunities they more than qualify for can be a devastating experience.
Why are they being shut out? The short answer: commonly believed stereotypes about older adults. According to a recent Ladders career advice article, there are at least five:
- Older adults can’t learn new things.
- Older adults are less productive.
- Older adults take more sick time off.
- Older adults will retire and leave.
- Older adults are over qualified and inflexible.
Like all stereotypes, all five are false and misleading.
In a recent Guardian feature article headlined “The Ugly Truth about Ageism: It’s a Prejudice Targeting our Future Selves,” writer Caroline Baum quotes several experts on ageism from the U.S., UK and Australia. For instance, the late Hal Kendig, a professor of ageing and public policy at the Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing at the Australian National University, touched on the ubiquity of ageism globally. “Ageism,” he said, “has been found to be all-pervasive across eastern as well as western cultures, including Confucian-based Asian cultures…”
Anne Karpf, a British writer is quoted as saying “each time we see an older person, we need to imagine them as our future self, and rather than recoil from their wrinkles and infirmities, applaud their resilience. We need to re-humanize older people.”
From the U.S., Ashton Applewhite, author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism” who also is known for a popular TED talk she gave in April 2017 that shows more than 1.3 million views, was also quoted in the Guardian article. “No prejudice is rational,” Applewhite says. “But with ageism, we have internalized it. We have been complicit in our own marginalization and it will require active consciousness-raising to correct that, just as the women’s movement did.”
A Perhaps Feeble Attempt to Offer Solutions
So, I’m now at the point in this article where I’m struggling to say something that nicely wraps all this up and offers a smart solution. Yes, there are unfair old ager stereotypes. Yes, it’s understandable that employers would prefer hiring youth over old age. And yes, business is business, and oftentimes business arrangements are unfair and one-sided.
Don’t believe all those articles claiming there are all kinds of jobs and business opportunities for old agers out there in both the traditional marketplace as well as the gig economy. Most are hogwash or extremely low-paying, extraordinarily difficult, mundane, soul-stealing jobs.
What can you do if you are a lower-class old ager seeking to supplement your social security benefits to survive comfortably? I think all you can do is keep working harder at trying to find something, try not to get too frustrated and stressed out, experiment with different job-hunting approaches, have faith in your authentic self, and hope for the best. Oh, and save some money by not going out for breakfast or lunch. There’s nothing enlightening about that, but that’s all I can come up with.