Aging of Aquarius

by

12/01/2006

26th St. & Madison Ave., NY, NY 10010

Neighborhood: Gramercy Park

The first time I was interviewed by a child was in the dotcom era. The spiky-haired, droopy-butted-jeans wearing creative director greeted me when I got off the elevator in the loft-like Chelsea space.

“Great . . . Wow,” I said, feigning interest in the “hang out” room and basketball hoops he mumbled on about as he gave me a tour of the office. I was in my mid-40s—though my friends swore I looked mid-30s—and the experience was both amusing and humiliating. Until that interview, I had thought of myself as young, hip, and creative.

Welcome to aging in the workforce—that odd condition where demographics is set to go head-to-head with ingrained cultural values. Between now and 2012, there is going to be a huge increase in the number of older workers. 50% more women over 50 are expected to be in the workforce—as compared to about 7% more between ages 25 and 50. Meanwhile, age discrimination complaints already make up almost 24% of all claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

I was born in 1954, smack in the middle of the baby boomers. Between growing up in an educated, upper-middle-class family and coming of age in the free-spirited ‘60s, I believed I could be anything I wanted in life. All I had to do was—as Monty Hall bid his ecstatic contestants each weekday afternoon—choose door number one, door number two or door number three.

I never exactly chose. I moved to New York in 1977 to study avant-garde theater at New York University. Post-college, in my ongoing search for meaning and fulfillment, I swung open doors to, among other things, TV production, teaching English as a second language, public relations, documentary film making, marketing nonprofits, and academia. Eventually I defaulted to advertising. As the eternal freelancer copywriter, my career progressed horizontally rather than vertically.

In the early ‘90s, I began to notice a change in the workplace. Just as we baby-boomers had rejected the “company man” careers of our fathers, the Generation Xers were rejecting the career paths of their baby boomer parents—and they were riding the swinging pendulum all the way to business school. They began accepting management positions at ad agencies, forging a decade-wide age gap between me and my “superiors.” Since being a manager was the last thing in the world that I aspired to, it didn’t ruffle my feathers to work under those young MBAs. Besides, nobody ever seemed to be aware of my advancing age.

In 1999, during a 10-month gig at an up-and-coming Gramercy Park agency, I had occasion to lunch with a couple of my co-workers—one, 23, the other, 26. Over dessert, the younger one glanced around, then lowered her voice, signaling juicy gossip to come:

“I overheard Elaine say that someone on our team is 45,” she gushed.

“Can you believe it? It’s got to be Sarah, right?” she asked, referring to a frumpy, overweight colleague.

Horrified, because of course I was the 45-year-old in question, I feigned indifference with a “Hmm, maybe,” then deftly changed the subject to the upcoming holiday weekend.

I revised my resume that evening, deleting all dates, and from then on I was careful to avoid allusions to Twiggy, Mr. Ed, All in the Family, or anything else that might give me away. I attributed the fact that my young co-workers never suspected that I was the geriatric among us to my youthful appearance, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

A few weeks later, a less flattering explanation occurred to me. Perhaps my colleagues just assumed I was young because surely if I were older I’d have a more senior position. The idea made me flush with shame. I felt like a total failure until my friend Jane managed to raise my spirits with her aging in the workplace story.

Like me, Jane had pursued a variety of fields, establishing a career with a horizontal trajectory. At one point, while Jane was enjoying a position at a national nonprofit organization, a woman twenty-five years her junior was hired for a job that involved, among other things, being Jane’s supervisor. While Jane had had no interest in that job herself, she found it humiliating to work under someone she considered a kid. To make matters worse, the kid resembled Drew Barrymore.

“I would look at her pretty, shiny, blonde hair and fresh complexion,” Jane told me, “and picture her as a 60-year old with droopy breasts and varicose veins!”

Eventually, Jane moved on to a different organization. In her new position as creative director for marketing, Jane was always on the lookout for good freelance help. She’d barely been at the job for six months when her former boss called to express interest in writing a brochure.

“The great thing,” Jane said, “was that I got to direct her in the project—and then I got to edit the hell out of her writing too!”

Jane’s happy ending notwithstanding, the world of employment can be bleak for the ex-young.

In an interview with The New York Times, Tory Johnson, owner of Women for Hire, a company that plans job fairs for women nationwide, described the situation facing women over 40 or those who have had “nontraditional career paths”:

“The majority of employers don’t want to discriminate, but I think there’s a disconnect between well-intentioned corporate policy and the daily routine of hiring. . . . A recruiter may have a problem interviewing someone who is his mother’s or even his grandmother’s age.”

Ouch.

My experience has been heightened by the fact that advertising, as Bob Garfield of “On the Media” said, “is obsessed with 18 to 34s to the exclusion of Boomers, the wealthiest demographic segment in the history of commerce.”

While I’m perfectly happy to have my wallet left untargeted, I’ve been stressed by the widespread industry belief that only 18-34-year-old copywriters are capable of speaking to the needs and desires of that precious group.

In her novel, “The Wonder Spot,” Melissa Bank—an ex-advertising colleague of mine—has her protagonist, Sophie, ask a co-worker with whom she is working on a pitch for a new line of anti-aging skin-care products something she’d been wondering about since she started in advertising:

“Where are all the older people?”

Sam answers, “Maturity is valued as much in advertising as it is in cheerleading.”

When I turned 50—barely able to remember Monty Hall and his invitation to choose a door, any door—I became driven by a new metaphor: Musical Chairs. I felt I had to nab a permanent position before the music stopped, and it had to be in a company that would allow me to grow even older with impunity. Surely there were products targeted to Boomers.

The answer was obvious: Drugs. Not the illegal kind my cohort popularized in the ‘60s, but the ever-growing variety on the market for treating cholesterol, blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, and heartburn. I was certainly familiar enough with them.

I called all the headhunters I knew. It’s not easy to transition into pharmaceutical advertising, but my 20-odd years of general experience were actually a plus.

After some serious interviewing, I landed a job. A job with medical insurance, prescription coverage, and a 401K retirement plan!

In my first week on the job, I heard someone say, “Happy Anniversary” to a woman who had three beautiful long-stem red roses in a vase on her desk. The next day, I heard a similar exchange. The following week, I noticed that a colleague had a dozen red roses. Could there really be that many unimaginative yet thoughtful husbands out there?

It turned out that my new employer sends all employees—female and male—roses on each anniversary of their hire date, and apparently it’s not uncommon to see lush bouquets of 15, or even 20, fragrant red roses on proud display in a cubicle.

It’s a great relief to be working for a company that honors maturity and experience. I finally feel free to be myself. I’ve grown so comfortable with my age, in fact, that I’m actually considering “coming out” to my colleagues.

The End

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