Why Is Age Still the Last Workplace Taboo?
The ex-editor of More froze before telling social media she'd turned 60
(This article previously appeared on LinkedIn.)
January 4th was my 60th birthday. It’s an achievement of which I’m very proud. Your 50s are the time when you start to actually notice the ages on the obituaries you read or hear on T.V. — and it’s uncomfortable when you watch the numbers veering too close. (Admittedly, it’s actually terrifying when a few of those ages are actually younger than yours!) There’s only so far denial can take you. And at 59, I realized a handful of friends and colleagues didn’t make it to 60. So I’m ecstatic to be here — in good health and with a family I love, and lots of giving friends around me.
But there was one telling, frightening moment. As I prepared my Facebook post announcing I’d made it to the starting line of my seventh decade, my finger froze in the air.
A Momentous Facebook Moment
I tend to be thoughtful and careful about my career; I know that there are things that can damage years of work in less than a second —especially with social media. I had to ask myself: Was I really ready to post my age for all 9,000 of my followers to see?
When I wrote my editor’s letters for More magazine, where I was editor-in-chief, I had a wonderful executive editor who would read and edit them and try to save me from own honesty. She would ask: Do you really want to tell the truth about a management clash that could make your boss mad? Do you really want to expose the antics of a cover star — or her handler — that might take More off their list of magazines for the future? I tend to walk right up to the edge of dangerous truth-telling and came to rely on the wonderful Judy to keep me from slipping over it and potentially losing my job.
The Workplace Stigma About Age
So I’m ashamed to say that my finger hovered above the “post” button Wednesday for one reason: I knew that if I posted my age, I’d be shooting my chances in the foot of ever getting a job in corporate America. Very few companies will take on someone five years from retirement who could run up their health care costs or become too hard to fire because they are a “protected class.”
Of course, no one will admit that you’re too old to hire to your face. And corporate HR departments have been taught to twist themselves into pretzels to make sure no one hints that age can bring about a ding. But anyone who’s walked the corridors of corporations knows the truth — that once you cross 50, you notice that the air near the top of your profession begins to thin out. You might even be the only one in your age group left in your division.
The staffs working around you start looking noticeably younger and you start to worry that when times get tough and management is hankering for a speedy Q4 downsize, the salary you killed yourself to attain could be a big red bulls-eye.
What Her 'More' Readers Said
I also remember the hundreds of More readers who wrote to me after The Great Recession, who said they’d been downsized from their prestigious corporate jobs. They’d sent resumés to over 400 job openings only to receive zero responses.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them what I knew even then: that women over 50 were never going to be welcomed back to corporate life; that their only option for making money going forward was as an independent entrepreneur. It’s no surprise to me that a 2015 Kauffman Institute Index noted the number of new entrepreneurs between ages 55 and 64 rose to 25.8 percent from 14.8 percent in 1997.
A New Life as an Entrepreneur
Though I’ve never hidden my age, I look younger, which makes people tend to forget it. So when I pressed that Facebook button, I was accepting that my time as an up-and-comer had long ago expired and that independence was going to be my only direction forward in the future. But push it I did.
Of course, the overwhelming response from my friends and colleagues was of joy and good wishes. One friend who had already “crossed over” mentioned her delight at the “end of striving.” Many others — both male and female — spoke of the opportunity to be finally “free” to be themselves.
All the research I’ve read (or had done at More) pointed to the 60s as being everyone’s happiest decade; I was getting that message. I do indeed have the sense that I’m stepping onto an uncharted pathway that will be challenging, but fascinating.
I also know this: Part of my happiness will come from changing just one person’s mind about what 60 looks and feels like — and perhaps convincing just one person in charge of hiring in some business somewhere that age really is just a number.
It’s time we said ta-ta to this last taboo.
(Lesley Jane Seymour is a former Editor-in-Chief of More, Marie Claire, REDBOOK and YM. Join her community of women who want to learn how to live a more authentic life at Coveyclub.com.)