Aging Up

Aging Up

About a year and a half ago, my dream job abruptly ended. I left tenure-track academia for this opportunity and took on a mortgage in the ‘burbs with my family. Fifteen months later, I was out of work: my position was terminated and half of our income was gone.

I can report that I have had a hard time in the job market since: I have garnered fewer interviews than ever before. I could add I am not taken as seriously, being a woman in my mid-40s. I work as a front-end creative director who creates branding and interactive designs. I always found this industry to be hard for women to stay in as they age or have children. I always assumed if I kept learning and experimenting, I’d find work and somehow escape the trend.

The thing is, even though the bias is true across industries (there is abundant data and thinking on this), what do I do? I still need to get up and find a way to make each day productive.

I have decided to age up into my current life and future roles. I have perspective and history, I am leading with it. I am not hiding my age, dyeing my grey hair, or obscuring my graduation dates. This will absolutely limit my options in the current job market, but they already are. Why should I add obfuscation to my work load?

I am not alone. I know many who round themselves down to fit the market: students of mine decide to use "white-sounding" names to help them get picked for jobs on a regular basis. In the past, I encouraged others to not list their home addresses to hide any damnable detail and increase their hire-ability. Friends made at job-seeking groups coach each other to appear to be wildly up-to-date on every trend. We all feel forced to conform to a system that finds us to be unworthy.

No. NO!! To hell with that, and to hell with businesses which hire that way. My wife and I have a little room for me to struggle and evolve. I am building my own opportunity and then I am creating more for others.

In this Year of Yes, I am forging a business with no money by designing for clients, producing content, making art, and teaching. I have stopped applying for jobs and begun to construct my own. I have a luxurious scrap of clarity where I say, okay, go ahead be biased, person over there... NEXT!  I am not leaning in, I am aging up.

I am not speaking for people who are in dire straits and I must been transparent about that. I am privileged in my middle-class white suburban existence. What I am doing is not open to all although it should be. Please feel free to comment at length on what you are going through, I want to listen and lend you support.

I have a dear friend in her mid 50s who is the most determined and clear-sighted leader I have ever encountered. When I met her, she had just been denied a position she richly deserved yet she chose to continue to serve the institution. She did not flag even as the situation became less and less tenable. She never let the job claim her quality even when our boss refused her the respect she had obviously earned. She pursued the goals at hand and did not let the constant noise of others' underestimation get in her way. I will ask her again how she came to this miraculous stance–when she told me before, I was not quite ready to listen. I was too busy trying to make myself fit the game at play and then reap the rewards I thought would flow.

I think, with my choosing to age up, I am finally ready to hear her. I certainly want to be like her, fierce and unbowed. I want to keep growing and creating chances for others who have immense potential. I want to bring all I have with me as I move in my career so I can serve more people better. I will never be able to do that if I keep trying to pretend I'm someone I am not.

To those of you winnowing out people like me from your hiring pool: keep your bias. Lean in on your own narrowing game. I and (so many others) can create my own path in the full light of day. We are finding each other and growing together. Who knows? One day, I may be interviewing you! I know I will give you a far fairer shake, and THAT makes my struggle worth it.

4 thoughts on “Aging Up”

  • I will be 55 in July. My only real client disappeared last year after keeping me busy for 9 years I experienced the worst 6 months of my career. I’ve worked pretty much non-stop for over 30 years for the same publisher. My problem is that my benefactors/patrons are all moving into retirement and the people who have come up behind them have not really developed the loyalty/relationships that have been the hallmark of my career. Because I chose to move into the freelance space 15 years ago I now face a really uncertain future that needs to carry me for at least another 15 years. I have no real retirement plan and a kid to help with college when I am 62. I spent 3 months spending hours a day applying for job after job only to receive no replies. I tried the gig sites, but because they require a personal photo and act like a social media site I felt very uncomfortable using my physical appearance as a selling point. The small-business market has so devalued the designer’s contribution that it’s an incredibly hard sell to get clients to see your value. It’s hard to see a career I absolutely adore come to such a screeching halt when I need it the most.

    • I hear you. And I know you personally, so I can attest to your expertise and brilliance. I am so lucky that I have a wife with a union job–otherwise, my exploration would be far less reasoned and paced. My strategy: I am diversifying my work offerings, diving deep into areas that I love and have some salable quality. I have no huge success to report except a soft trending up. It is not an easy answer. But I love you, dear friend, and I know you are an enormous talent. We need to talk offline and check in–what does your weekend look like?

      • I have had to diversify. I took on a partnership to develop chess training books with a local chess coach my son trains with. I design BMX jerseys for the team we are a part of and that has turned into a small side business because I have to take orders and fulfill them. I’m looking into things like creating stock art or possibly handmade products based on my drawings. I would love to check in. My weekends are child-centered 48-hour marathons.

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