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An Open Letter (and a Rant) on Age Discrimination at Work


Send questions about the office, money, careers and work-life balance to workfriend@nytimes.com. Include your name and location, even if you want them withheld. Letters may be edited.

Let’s start with two letters this week. No. 1:

I am an advertising creative who has been unemployed for over six months. I’m having difficulty finding a full-time role because I fear that, in my 50s, I’ve been thrown out with the trash in favor of “new blood.” No matter how I tailor my job applications, cover letters and C.V. with clever approaches, I can’t get my foot in the door — only compliments on my videos or LinkedIn connections. But LinkedIn connections don’t pay the rent.

I’ve sent solicited and unsolicited applications to more than 100 companies, but no luck. Some of this could be because I haven’t recently won any major industry awards — which carries weight in this competitive industry. Or maybe the positions are genuinely filled. But I can’t shake the feeling that, if I applied for a role 20 or even 10 years ago, I wouldn’t need to write this letter.

I can’t hide my experience, nor can I turn back the clock. And now time and money are running out.

— London

And No. 2:

People need to stop prefacing workplace conversations with older people with terms like “Hon,” “Dear,” or “Sweetie.” Ageism is real and despicable, and it is becoming more and more prevalent.

Those of us who are still in the work force particularly loathe those terms. At 66, I am in excellent health. I dress well, walk fast to my workplace and pride myself on every compliment. (I earned them!) Yet too many professionals presume I am hard of hearing, frail, forgetful or otherwise impaired to the point where they address me as one would a small child. Could it be the silver bob? Then presume I’m Miranda Priestly, not your great-grandma.

And yes, of course I have email, and yes, I actually would prefer text, and yes, I am going to swirl around you fast enough on my sneaker-clad feet to make you spin if you do not stop texting and crawling along Fifth Avenue. And hell no, I do not want a childproof cap on anything that threatens to ruin my expensive manicure or sprain my hand worse than the heaviest weights I lift at the gym, because no, I do NOT have any children or grandchildren!

— New York


I know I’m supposed to be the “expert” here and behave “professionally,” but: New York, will you be my best friend? I like expensive manicures, admire Miranda Priestly, have never called anyone “sweetie,” and aspire to both a chic silver bob and your level of pithy and acerbic writing. Call me.

Now then: Ten columns into this gig, I have a solid archive of questions about age discrimination, and very few good answers. It is a huge issue, and it is absurdly difficult to combat — truly a terrible combination for an advice columnist! New York, you’re surely right that you’re being patronized for your age, and London, you’re surely right that your age unfairly plays into how your job applications are evaluated. The problem, as I learned when I turned to an outside expert for guidance, is that age discrimination is uniquely difficult to prove — by design. A 2009 Supreme Court decision endorsed a higher standard for showing advanced age is the cause of disparate treatment in the workplace than the threshold for other types of discrimination. “As a society — and I include the judiciary — we seem to view age discrimination as less serious and less wrong than other forms of discrimination because an employer has a right to run their business the way they want,” says Laurie McCann, a senior attorney for AARP Foundation.


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