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Ageism: A Diversity Challenge

The Invisible People

2020 was the Year of the Pandemic. (Well, the first year, anyways.) It was also the kickstart year in calling for greater inclusion and diversity in all dimensions of our society.

Affirmative action is the precursor initiative to the present-day call to action. Many of today’s older workers remember it being staunchly in place in corporate America since the early 1980s. In fact, affirmative action had appeared two decades earlier.

While the concept of affirmative action has existed in America since the 19th century, it first appeared in its current form in President Kennedy's Executive Order 10925 (1961): "The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." – Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School

Higher education has also been a strong proponent of inclusion and diversity, actively looking for new students who are not only underrepresented minorities, but also first generation Americans, students who are first in their families to attend college, international students, and those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

Within corporate America, however, one group has consistently been shunted off to the side. Ageism is alive and well, despite efforts to prevent it. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older. (Yes, a 40 year old is considered an older worker!) But when older workers lose their jobs through no fault of their own - from corporate layoffs, bankruptcies, or other reasons beyond their control -

it’s particularly difficult for those over 55 to find new jobs that are anywhere comparable in pay or opportunity to the jobs they had lost. And when they do find something, it often takes them much longer than their younger colleagues. And much too often with a large pay cut.

Older people in general tend to become invisible to most of society, with increasing irrelevance marching in lockstep with each passing year. Women, specifically, take the brunt of it. Forbes Magazine speaks of the “double whammy” of ageism coupled with sexism that women over 50 receive in the workplace. A recent study,entitled “Is it Harder for Older Workers to Find Jobs?” from The National Bureau of Economic Research, reports that “physical appearance matters more for women” since “age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men.” Who is really surprised by this? Not the dermatologists who have their patient lists filled with older women looking for Botox and filler treatments. Sorry, guys. The ladies aren’t getting these treatments just to look better to you.

I have both friends and family members who are caught in the vise of ageism. Unemployed through layoffs, they tell me that that prospective employers are interested in their credentials and accomplishments … until they meet in person. Nothing is said that would put the business at risk of a lawsuit for age discrimination, but these older workers hear the subtext. The explanations from the company inevitably are some combination of “you’re overqualified for the position” and “we can’t match your previous salary.” Even when the applicant is willing to take a cut in pay, fewer jobs materialize than for similar, younger candidates. Those who do receive offers and accept these positions often report that they did so at the expense of their salaries; many take pay cuts of 35-50%. Six to twelve months of unemployment and dozens of fruitless interviews can realign expectations. Many at this point are just happy to be employed, and hoping to remain so until retirement age. Especially as relatively few can afford to quit working altogether.

I’ve had these conversations enough recently to know that the problem has only been exacerbated with Covid, with so many businesses being particularly hard hit. Inevitably, my friends and I end up comparing our experiences over the past five or so years.

Their corporate experience: No surprise there. The corporate world provides the opportunity for steady employment, upward mobility, and financial security. Not to mention medical benefits! But it can also leave its employees high and dry, with only a short term safety net, should the business run into trouble. Or if it restructures itself due to an acquisition or merger. Or simply streamlines itself for greater profitability. Younger workers usually have a much easier time rebounding into new positions elsewhere. So the going is great until … it’s not.

In contrast, artists like myself deal with unpredictability every day, and a typically uncertain financial earning power. We, however, may derive immense personal satisfaction from our artistic pursuits, which may outweigh economic benefits from more traditional career path. And we can continue working as independent artists for as long as possible or desired. Now, in some mediums, such as on camera work, physical aging will definitely reduce demand for the artist (think middle-aged actresses!), but in others, not so much. Or at all. (One of the great advantages to voice over work!)

Actually, I have to consider myself very fortunate, enjoying the best of both corporate and artistic worlds. I loved my corporate career in my youth … well, most of the time … and now I’m living my dream as an actress on camera and behind the mic. And while I’m no spring chicken, my voice over work in particular is not suffering for it. On the contrary, I’m finding that life experience and perspective brings much to the roles I audition for and book, whether they’re for film and TV or a corporate video. Being a little “long in the tooth” hasn’t hurt a bit.

One of the great things about voice over is that the age that a voice sounds is not tied to the actor’s chronological age. I know quite a few women in their 40s and beyond who do quite well voicing child and teen roles! And instead of being limited to a 5-7 year span of character ages on camera, there is no hard and fast rule limiting the age range that a voice actor can create. Most voice actors find that they can work within a 20 year span, if not more. While this age range will adjust with the actor over time – voices do deepen - it many cases, it still remains rather broad.

So what’s the cure for ageism? Our culture is oriented towards youth and beauty, and has for quite some time. Baby boomers thought the perspective might change as their large numbers began moving into the Social Security years. All that brought were more commercials for medical aids. And Viagra.

Ageism in the workplace is still a problem, despite legislation to address it. It will not become a priority anytime soon, especially with so many younger folks out of work. And amidst the calls for inclusion and greater diversity in the workplace, older people as a group are again just not a priority.

One solution, if the older person can plan for it and afford the shift, is to become your own boss. Take skills well-honed through years of experience and open your own business. Turn a passion or hobby into making some money. Better yet, if you’re not yet the older worker, plan ahead! Think of what you’d like to do in the last ten years before retirement age, should you find yourself involuntarily out of work, and lay the groundwork for a new career. Best of all, save for retirement long before you think you’ll need it. It’s that old “rainy day” fund on steroids. And you’re never too young to start it, even if you can only contribute $5 a week.

I’ve noticed that voice over people are among the happiest I’ve met. They’re friendly, helpful to one another, and highly appreciative of their clients. That’s what you get from working for yourself at something you love. I wish everyone could do the same: to be fully in charge of your career, your prospects, and ultimately responsible for your economic future.