The Brutality of Agism

As I reach the pinnacle of my 40s, my conversations with friends and family about jobs has shifted. For many years, it was all about how incredibly difficult it was to manage a new career and a new family. I hear less and less of those conversations.

People who stayed in the workforce are settling down. The professor friends are going to fewer conferences, writing less stuff, have stopped dreaming of better jobs. My friends who don’t have the tenure security blanket are more worried about keeping their jobs, but have also stopped striving for more. If it hasn’t happened yet, it ain’t gonna happen. There’s a brick wall in front of them. My friends who are in fields that are dominated by younger, flashier versions of themselves are actually frightened. Will the young boss fire them?

Then there are my friends, mostly women, but not all, who didn’t follow the traditional career paths. They became the flexible parent. The ones who went to the parent-teacher conferences and the after school music classes. They made sub-optimal career choices or stopped work entirely for a few years. Now, they want back into the wold of work, and their job applications are immediately dumped in a trash can. There’s a thread on my Facebook page about this right now.

I’ve had a terrible cold for the past couple of weeks. There’s nothing like a lingering cold to make you feel old. The kids shook it off in two days, and I’m still hacking up a lung and watching cable TV on the sofa in the evening.

One of things that I’ve been watching on the sofa wrapped in a blanket is the Shark Tank. Five venture capitalists listen to five minute presentations from wannabe millionaires who are looking for cash to fund their protein drink and purse businsesses. One of “sharks” is Barbara Corcoran, the real estate mogul from New York City. Barbara is smart, good looking, rich, and in her 60’s. Her age is a running joke on the show. It’s pretty distasteful.

Seems like such a waste to me. Whole groups of people being discounted and overlooked and insulted. Is 40 the new 65?

20 thoughts on “The Brutality of Agism

  1. I think it’s just the economy overall. The people just coming out of school now, except the top of the class, is in worse shape than the middle aged.


  2. Eric Betzig, yesterday’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has a intriguing career history. He is 54. He graduated in 1984, with a BS in physics, got his Ph.D. at 1988, and then worked at Bell Labs for 6 years, leaving in 1994 to work at his father’s machine company, only returning to academics in 2002 (when he was 42), and not becoming a group leader at HHMI’s Janelia Farms until 2006 (when he was 46).

    Usually I have to cite women, and non-scientists, people like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the Harvard Historian, or Barbara Black, former Dean of Columbia Law, as examples.

    Nonlinear career paths still exist, and some people have more time and energy for them when they are older. You’ve written before about disrupting tenure and I do think that the disruptions in the economy can create opportunities, too (along with risk and fear). Janelia Farms was a disruption, established in 2006, with a new model of research lab, for both academia and for the Howard Hughes Institute.


    1. “Nonlinear career paths still exist, and some people have more time and energy for them when they are older”. Yes. Another example: Torstein Veblen´s academic career (university position) started when he was 45.


  3. Agiism is still rampant (and not just by the cold virus, which is a terrible offender), especially in the tech industry. Part of the agism is a desire to attract the ideal workers (i.e. ones who have no other responsibilities, and will devote their entire life to the work). Tech startups, with limited time windows for success fall into that category (as well as other, purely discriminatory ones). So does the movement towards temporary/corp volunteer teachers (like TFA). So do junior faculty positions.

    I wonder if in time, an ideal worker who is past caregiving will also arise?


  4. In the tech industry, I think it’s also related to a younger person’s ability to pick up new things very quickly, and to think about problems in new ways. Once you really learn a technology deeply and are very invested in it, everything you see will be a potential application for that technology. Likewise you develop certain approaches for problem-solving and use them again and again. Younger people more easily break out of that.

    I am 46 and have been in IT since my mid-20s, and despite lots of success I am thinking really hard about hanging it up. Every meeting is more of a battle to be heard. I’m not cool enough, I guess. Or maybe if I was really good I would have started my own company by now.


    1. You know how little kids pick up new technologies effortlessly, even when the technologies flummox their grandmas and grandpas?


  5. I wonder if this is also more true in certain regions or microcultures? From my time spent in the mid-Atlantic I feel like there’s a lot that’s really specific to the NY-Philly-N New Jersey region that people from there assume is national. In the PNW (probably at another extreme) it seems like nonlinear career paths and reinvention are fairly common and pretty accepted. Just thinking off the top of my head, my mother joined the workforce in her early 40s after 15 years as a SAHM, and worked her way up from a volunteer position to executive director of her organization in about 5 years. She made a career switch in her early 50s into govt bureaucracy, and just got some crazy promotion a few months ago in her early 60s, which apparently involves her living in Texas for half the week and Chicago every other weekend. A family friend got denied tenure in his 40s, started a successful small business, sold it and retired in his early 60s, and after a huge health scare started a different small business in mid 60s, which is now doing very well. A high school history teacher was a former radiologist who turned to teaching in his 40s. My high school freshman English teacher left to take up a tenured position at the local university in her mid 50s. As often as not, it seems like the adults I know are changing careers or dropping out of the workforce for a few years to build a cob house in the wilderness and then plugging back in when they want to.


    1. I’ve told the stories before, but my family is also PNW and a couple of my relatives really only got totally on track in their 50s and are really rocking and rolling at 60-something.

      Of course, it makes a HUGE difference if you’re (at least partly) in business for yourself. You can’t get fired or not hired when you’re the boss.


  6. Yes, I’m not sure if this conversation is a local issue. Could just be the unrepresentative sample of people I know on Facebook and at cocktail parties. Could be the lingering effects of the bad economy. This is the first time that I’ve really thought about it, so I was throwing it out here on the blog.


    1. I think the age discrimination is real, especially in the tech industry. I also see people reinventing themselves in middle age too. It can be extraordinarily painful though, both emotionally and financially. But career security has always been an illusion, even in fields we think of as recession proof. My sister, a nurse practitioner, has been seeing layoffs of NPs in her organization.


  7. PHEW, I was kinda freaking out reading your post because, well… I’m 43 & don’t have a “real” job yet and just yesterday found out that the lecturer job I do have is becoming a new position next year with a national search which could mean two things: either I’ll have a three year contract or they’ll dump me and hire someone else. Sigh… So, yeah… uncanny timing reading what you wrote.

    Thankfully, B.I.’s comment gave me a lot of hope and AmyP’s too. Maybe all is not lost for me. Although the likelihood of me landing a tenure-track job at this point is slim. I think I’d be OK to continue being a lecturer with benefits for several years if I feel secure enough.

    Oh yeah… and just today my husband was talking to me about feeling old and not being able to connect to younger people. Sigh… I hope that 40 is not the new 65, no, please no! Too depressing just to think of that… 😦


  8. I have actual expertise here! Being as how I am 64, for a few more months… So, ‘they’ have been saying 30 is the new 20, and 40 is the new 30, and 50 is the new 40. Well, 60 is the new 60. I have hurty joints, and varicose veins. I get up in the morning and wobble into the bathroom and collect myself. And I think no one at the office is thinking of me as the new up and coming, Dave for branch chief. I work for a guy who is in his 40s.

    My life is pretty good, between us my wife and I make enough money if we run our cars til they fail and don’t decide we have to have a sailboat or a country place. We expect a comfortable though not luxe retirement. I will have a pension, unless Congress gets frisky with it.

    But: pathway matters, and so does gender. I think about this in the context of classmates and family. Gender – think of the pretty little college grad girls in Japan hired to be greeters in apartment stores, a job that’s good til the first wrinkle appears, and then they are shuffled out of the way (go get married, girls!) to make space for a new crop of pretties. One of my sisters (a babe! she was) kept getting hired for jobs which were a little zippier than her qualifications really explained until she was about 40, and then that dried up and she has struggled. My sister the doctor has done fine as she has aged.

    Organizations tend to organize a career structure which benefits long stayers. Think IBM, and government offices, and General Motors. Once tenured, college teaching is this way (a LOT is hidden in those two words, “once tenured”!). I’m most familiar with the government, which has had yearly COLAs, and for which a number of job series have had pretty much automatic promotion to a new higher grade every three or four years. It creates the feeling of progress. Is it true? I’ve gotten longevity promotions, in my government office, but I don’t think I am in fact better than I was at 40, just the beneficiary of the way the career is structured. But if you do organization work, and the organization itself goes into the crapper (you worked for Studebaker, and your pension went with the company, or Enron and your 401(k) was full of its stock, or you taught law at Cooley or Vermont) then you are squirted out into an uncaring world having clambered up a pole which is no longer there.

    Now, kicked to the curb as you age. Let’s remember that Bismarck picked 65 as the age when the German old age pension would take effect largely because it was about when people became unable to continue, and because not many people lived for very many years after. Roosevelt picked 65 because Bismarck had. It matters a lot if you are doing something physical. Lubu, I’d love to see you weigh in on this. I can keep doing memos for years! and applying the rules of my agency to the cases which come in. I’d be in serious decline if I were a plumber, no longer limber enough to get under a sink and winkle the tubes through small holes (my plumber friend who came out of the Marines and started his business and made 150000 a year is now in his early 50s and it is getting difficult, and he looks around at the plumbing supply house in the mornings and he is the oldest guy picking up parts). If you are a dentist, you either are or aren’t a person for whom tremor becomes a problem as you hit your 60s.

    So the claim here is that for some people their ability to contribute goes down a lot as they age, for some it is less, and there is also some tendency for people who do hiring to look for the young and toothsome, particularly when looking at women. We may be able to do something about the preference for Y&T, though it’s hard to imagine the business model of Hooters surviving (no loss, right?!) but nobody wants a dentist with tremor. Gotta save like mad when you are young!


  9. It matters a lot if you are doing something physical. Lubu, I’d love to see you weigh in on this.

    I started and stopped several times on this thread, “for reasons”, as the kids say these days.

    Tradespeople start getting put out to pasture at age 40, regardless of one’s physical condition. Contractors don’t want you after that, and staying viable—employable—after age 40 requires some strategizing if you don’t want to just be constantly on the road while your kids are in school. Working towards a foreman’s position, but there’s a limited number of those positions and if you don’t have the advantage of nepotism, good luck with that. Cozying up to the people who do have those positions, and especially to the guys in the office above them—joining the same social clubs (which are mostly off-limits to women), coaching in the same Little League/soccer/etc. kids team leagues (which aren’t officially off-limits to women like the social clubs are, but might as well be), hanging around and kissing ass (oh, did I say that out loud?), that sort of thing. Getting elected to union office and/or sitting on the apprenticeship committee and/or teaching apprenticeship classes can help, mostly because it puts you in a position of some authority as the years go by and some of those bright young apprentices become your foremen—they’ll remember who treated them well and who didn’t.

    Here’s what non-tradespeople don’t understand about the trades: finding work in the post-industrial landscape is a serious game of musical chairs. Manufacturing kept a lot of tradespeople working too, not just factory workers. Maintenance, retooling, adding or changing new lines, etc. That’s all gone. Retail doesn’t keep tradespeople working, and neither does office complexes or warehouses. Resource extraction and power generation do—so expect things to get interesting on the environmental front.

    It isn’t age that gets you, it’s the work itself that wears a body down. Most of an electrician’s work is off a ladder. On the upside, I look really good in yoga pants. On the downside, the same activity that gives you an ass that can crack walnuts makes you susceptible to knee injury. Lots of knee and hip replacements in the trades. Plus, we aren’t often doing this in temperate weather—buildings are really, really cold before the power goes on. Significantly colder than the outside. That is really, really unkind to joints and backs. I’ve been wearing a gore-tex underlayer earlier and earlier in the season as the years go by.

    Mostly we tough it out and end up with a handful of W-2s at the end of the year if we haven’t found a “home” by our forties. It is what it is. The knowledge base, skillset, and personal qualities built up from a couple decades of being a journeyman don’t lend themselves to career change. Some folks have a side gig (musician, artist, furniture-building, that sort of thing) to help rake in money when work gets slow.

    I didn’t respond to this thread at first because the parameters are different for us. We’re not climbing a ladder; what we expect and want from our jobs doesn’t translate well to the white collar world. That’s part of why we don’t seek career change as we age—we don’t translate well to other worlds.


    1. I’m sure it is hard on the body. I stopped doing that kind of work at 22. But the increase in knee replacement isn’t good evidence of how hard something is on joints. That’s up all over, mostly because of the increasing chunkiness of society and because the surgery itself has gotten much less risky.

      Anyway, most of the trades people I see here are 40 to 60 year old men, often having moved back from the south after the housing boom collapsed there. Pittsburgh is an atypical city, demographically and otherwise. The only youngish tradesman we saw in our house used to date Christina Aguilera before she was famous. He put in our ceiling fans.


      1. I worry about any tradesman younger than about 35. Who wants a 25-year-old plumber? Not me. 40-60 is probably the sweet spot for evoking customer trust and confidence.


      2. I suspect in parts of the country where the average housing stock isn’t 110 years old, more people work in new construction than repair.


  10. Let’s remember that Bismarck picked 65 as the age when the German old age pension would take effect largely because it was about when people became unable to continue, and because not many people lived for very many years after. Roosevelt picked 65 because Bismarck had

    I want to literally eviscerate anyone that talks about raising retirement to age 70. It’s bad enough to have it as high as 65. It ought to be lower for people whose jobs are physical.


  11. I’m absolutely with you. “Rob you with a fountain pen” – that’s the guy in the memo mines who pencils it out that we can save Social Security by just raising the age at which you can receive it to… whatever it has to go to this year. The only thing he is lifting is his coffee cup. And did I mention arthritis?

    Greece, on the other hand, did variable retirement ages, including beauty parlor workers being able to go out at 50? 55? on grounds of their exposure to hair dyes, and it was not a success.

    My own favorite nostrum is to put in a carbon tax, and put the money to the national pension scheme.


  12. We have a 15 year difference in when we want to retire in our family. I’d be good with 62 and I like my work. My dh thinks he has to work until 78 or so and he was the one laid off 2 years ago (at 53). So now he’s worked one 2-year contract, took the mandatory 60 days off, and starting the next 2-year contract in a couple weeks. Yes, it’s the large pacemaker company that is/isn’t going to Ireland that laid off pretty much everyone over 50 in his division. He’s fine with it, has worked as an independent contractor before. But yes, bottom line, save while younger.


Comments are closed.