Challenging the myths around the one -ism that affects all of us.
By Tina Essmaker Illustration by Javier Suarez
“This is the one -ism that affects every single one of us,” Cindy Gallop, the self-proclaimed Michael Bay of business, told me. She continued, “Say your age from as early as possible and as often as possible.” Gallop does just that. At age 59, the New York-based CEO & Founder of Make Love Not Porn, has been vocally challenging ageism in the advertising industry for years.
Cindy is right. We are all aging. I’m 38. Born in 1981, I’m an elder Millennial and one of more than 75 million in my generation, which is overtaking the boomers. As my cohort and I slide into middle age in the years ahead, we will be met with critical questions about our careers: How do we remain relevant? Will we continue to thrive professionally? Will our contributions still be valued? And, ultimately, how can we carry the baton passed to us from previous generations like Cindy’s to continue challenging youth-centric ideals that permeate our culture, and thus our industries?
In an effort to understand a road that I — and many of us — have yet to traverse, I began the conversation about ageism with what happens as we get older. I spoke with creatives who have been there, done that. All over the age of 40, each generously shared their experiences, which challenge the oft-held myths we believe about aging and offered practical insights to take action toward future-proofing our own careers.
Defining ageism in the workplace
The definition of ageism was updated in 2009 as “negative or positive stereotypes, prejudice and/or discrimination against (or to the advantage of) elderly people on the basis of their chronological age or on the basis of a perception of them as being ‘old’ or ‘elderly.’”
Ageism can take many forms, including implicit bias, like believing older people have less to contribute in the workplace; stereotyping, such as the idea they’re resistant to technology, not open to change, slower to make decisions, and difficult to train; and digital ageism, which assumes that youth means digitally capable and older people are digitally incapable, regardless of empirical evidence.
In the US, the federal government prohibits ageism in employment practices for employees age 40 and older in accordance with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Yet, in a survey conducted by AARP, results found that out of workers age 45 and older, 16% believe they didn’t get a job they applied for because of age, 12% said they had been passed over for a promotion because of age, and 7% said they’d been laid off, fired, or forced out of a job because of age discrimination.
We know discrimination happens, but what can we do to extend the longevity of our careers and thrive as older adults in the workplace? Here, creatives share five invaluable lessons learned from experience:
1. If you can’t find the resources you need, create them yourself.
Austin-based 59-year-old author and entrepreneur Chip Conley founded the Modern Elder Academy, the world’s first midlife wisdom school, located in Baja California Sur, Mexico, where students learn how to repurpose a lifetime of experience. “My most recent book and the Modern Elder Academy offer people my age a means to navigate the transitions around midlife that can be so problematic for so many,” he said.
Additionally, Cindy Gallop shared a handful of ventures started to market to older people through the lens of older people, like Grace Creative LA, Fallow Fields Agency, The Silver Group, Flipside Global, The Uninvisibility Project, and hiretheoldf*cker.com.
2. Re-evaluate how you spend your talent, energy, and time.
Soon-to-be 54-year-old art director and designer Andy Clarke, based in North Wales, UK, has been in the creative field for over 30 years and has mostly run his own business with shorter stints working for others. He noted that as he’s aged, he has re-evaluated how he wants to work and how he spends his resources of talent, energy, and time. “You are the person responsible for your own future at the end of the day. You have to be self-motivated.”
He has diversified by including more focus on discovering opportunities for passive income. For example, he’s currently writing articles, which will turn into yet another book and perhaps a video series or workshops. “You have to be mindful of maximizing every opportunity. You are the person responsible for your own future at the end of the day. You have to be self-motivated.”
3. Be intentional about your career whether you work for yourself or someone else.
Boulder-based Kara Fellows urged, “Keep learning and growing and adding to your skill set.” The illustrator and designer notes that it’s easier to follow an established structure when working full-time for others, while on your own you have to create a strategy and plan for the future. “I think most artists get better with age.”
But, even if you work for someone else — as Fellows did for several years before being let go, which she believes was age-related — she advises making sure you’re getting paid what we’re worth and getting matched on your 401k contributions. Now running her own studio again, she noted, “Artists don’t retire; we keep working because it’s what we love to do. I think most artists get better with age. What can you do for the rest of your life that supports you financially and feeds your soul?”
4. Utilize the skills you’ve acquired to reinvent yourself.
Fifty-five-year-old Leon Lawrence, Design Director at National Association of Counties and AIGA Design for Good Chair in Washington, DC, advised utilizing the skills you’ve acquired and turning them into other things. “Once you acquire a certain amount of skills and networks, it’s easier to transform those assets you’ve acquired into ancillary fields. You’re finding avenues to grow that you might not have thought about before. You find ways to expand.”
No stranger to reinvention, Lawrence first worked at a design studio, then in entertainment at BET, then in publishing before taking his current role at a nonprofit as he shifted from print to digital. He also credited his work at AIGA with keeping him connected to younger generations and giving him opportunities to try new things.
5. Challenge your beliefs about opportunities that come with age.
Gallop left me — and us — with one last challenge. See your age as an asset. “Your age is a very special number because it’s the sum total of you. It’s the representation of all your life experience, learnings, and things that make you uniquely you over the years. Your age is enormously valuable.”