Ageism Part III: Getting Hired
If millions of unemployed older women are not getting hired, and no one hears or talks or writes about them, do they make a sound?
This is Part III in a 3-part series on ageism. Part I, on hate speech, can be found here. Part II, on getting fired, is here. In fact, this topic is so vast and underreported, I’m considering a Part IV on the intersection of AI and ageism. Stay tuned…
The hardest part about writing a story on ageism in hiring older women is that no one involved in either perpetuating or experiencing it wants to speak to you on the record. Not the hiring managers, who won’t return my phone calls or emails, except for one who said that yes—off the record—she is often advised to fill her openings with what sounded like a bad 80s soap opera: “The Young and the Inexpensive.” Not the C-suite folks, who are quick tell you all about the older women on their staff, until you point out that these women have been working at the company for years, and what you’re really interested in is how many women over fifty they have hired this year. (They’ll get back to you, they say. They never do.) Not the newly appointed DEI officers, who’ve been working diligently to fill jobs with Black, brown, indigenous, and disabled workers—which is great! and much overdue!—but who do not see age as part of their diversity, equity, and inclusion mandate.
Even you yourself do not want to go on the record, having put off writing this story for several months. Do you really want everyone out there to know that, despite thirty-nine years of professional journalism experience in multiple mediums—you started out as a columnist for Seventeen at seventeen, then moved on to photojournalism, TV news, magazines, newspapers, and books—that you, an Emmy-award winning, New York Times bestselling, Golden Globe nominated writer, have failed to find a full-time position with health benefits, after Covid layoffs and other shenanigans, for nearly two years? No. You do not. It feels shameful, embarrassing, and, worse, a massive liability to your ability to fix it.
Ladyparts is a reader-supported publication. However, if you are an older woman struggling to find work & unable to afford the $5 monthly subscription, I’ve got you covered. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll comp you.
In fact, none of the unemployed women in my middle-aged cohort wanted to speak to me on the record. Give me their names? Hahahaha! Seriously? Their googleable, searchable names, while they’re in the middle of looking for work and failing to find it? Um, no thank you! It’s hard enough out there already, Deb, as you know all too well.
Yes. I know. I have sent out over a hundred resumes and cover letters, to no avail. Not only did I never get hired or even interviewed, I never got an email back. Luckily, I’m pretty good at hustling freelance work. Plus I started this Substack, which has been both a pleasure and an unexpected boon. Plus an anonymous patron, known only to me for now and forever, offered to set me up with adequate health insurance1 after reading my book about, among other things, the insanity of our country’s health insurance system and how it nearly broke me. Otherwise this single mother of three, with her freelance income, would be out on the street and unable to afford food let alone the approximate $2400 a month in COBRA fees or the multiple medications she now takes, as a menopausal Covid long-hauler, to stay healthy and be able to work.
Wondering how prevalent my precarious situation is or is not, I set up a new email account specifically to gather other middle-aged women’s stories, which I promised they (or their friends, or their friends of friends of friends) could write to me privately. That inbox was soon filled with hapless tales of woe, none for attribution. What these women wrote, dozens of times in dozens of similar ways, was that when they see story after story about the massive labor shortage in the U.S., they wonder if they’re living in an alternate timeline.
One woman had to move back in with her mother. Another is currently looking for a room—any room in any apartment—that she can rent for cheap while she keeps looking for a new job, because her landlord, high on New York City’s new rental shortages, nearly doubled her rent, and now she can no longer afford to live in her home.
(You know who’s doing well these days? Landlords!)
A 50-something banker at a large bank you’ve definitely heard of, with three decades of banking experience, suddenly noticed that, despite remaining a top producer, her contributions seemed to have “greater value when I was in my late 20s than they do in my early 50s.” Soon enough, now that she was being paid fairly for the value she added, the bank was trying to force her to take an early retirement.
“It is ironic,” wrote another woman, who did not want either her name or profession revealed—we’ll call her X—“that I am less attractive to employers when I no longer have competing demands of caring for young children.” X got so fed up with being unable to find a job in her chosen profession that she went back to school to learn a new one, landing a job in that new field, but only because she could afford to take the years off to get a different degree, and her professor provided a foot in the door to the job.
Then there’s a an older woman we’ll call Y. She and I once worked together, and she was really good at her job, which was in what we’ll vaguely call logistics and management. Y recounted a recent interaction with her hairdresser: “Like a lot of women,” she told me, “I cover my gray hair. The hairdresser who was dying my hair was new and had never seen me before. As he was covering my gray he said something like ‘Maybe one day you’ll be comfortable with your gray hair and won’t have to get rid of it.' I responded, 'Clearly you’ve never been an older woman looking for a job.’”
Another woman—we’ll call her Z—was a successful filmmaker who has found it increasingly difficult to get films made, now that she’s officially older in a profession that values youth above all else. She’s been trying to get Hollywood’s main industry database—IMDb, a commercial private company—to remove women’s ages from their online listings. “If you beg them to delete them, they behave like a government agency, asking for you to upload your passport, birth certificate, etc. before they change it. Many women have tried to bring them down, to no avail, as it is super damaging for our careers. We can change every other information, only not our age. Of course no one is talking widely about this because we do not want to make people go check our age, do we?”
Meanwhile, in my shrinking profession, the situation for older female journalists has been dire for years. Since we’ve run out of end-of-the-alphabet letters, meet Q, a middle-aged woman who also recently had to move when she could no longer afford her rent after a Covid-related job loss. “I found a job ad that was a borderline decent fit from the NYT,” she wrote, “but they mentioned that they wanted someone who could handle a demanding job...someone with the right ‘metabolism.’ People manage to discourage you from even applying with shit like that.”
Yes, I know, Q. For one publicly posted position at that same paper of record, I was told by the hiring editor, someone my age whom I know, respect, and like a lot, that the position was “too junior” and for someone in “mid career”: buzzwords that mean, quite simply, “Sorry, I wish I could help, but I’ve been told I have to hire someone young and cheap.” Not her fault! I want to stress this! Rather, it’s a systemic, top-down problem of corporate greed and indifference to the plight of older workers, which we are not discussing or fixing for lack of coverage, public outrage, and proof.
Finally, after much searching, I did manage to locate, no, not a full-time job, but that other needle in a haystack: the one woman who was not only willing to speak to me on the record, she has made it her mission to call out ageism on Twitter every time she sees it.
Meet Emily Nunn, my new hero. After finishing her book, The Comfort Food Diaries, she applied for a job listed among the twenty or so new listings at the Washington Post, five of which I also applied for in 2017. Unlike Emily, I never heard back. From anyone. And this was with the recommendation from a friend who works there. The Washington Post would later produce a report on the problem of women over forty being ghosted by potential employers, conveniently leaving out that their own hiring teams have been equally guilty of this affront.
Emily also applied for jobs at the Post in 2018 and 2020, the former attempt for which she received—lucky her for even getting one—the following form letter, which went viral after she tweeted it:
Nunn had worked at both The New Yorker and the Chicago Tribune over the course of her long and illustrious career, before switching gears to write her book on a freelance contract (as all books are written—it’s not like Random House is handing out health insurance and matching 401K contributions when you write a book for them. You get a 1099 and a pat on the back.) “I basically live in a culture that no longer wants any of the things that I have gathered around me,” Nunn told me. “Any of the things that I earned or learned? It gets disappeared. It's like a kidnapping! It’s suddenly like, boom! You’re gone.”
Form letters, like the one addressed to Nunn, or a lack of response, as was the case with me, are often the result, I recently learned, of artificial intelligence: an algorithm scans resumes and cover letters for god knows what—no one will tell you their secret sauce—and chooses which candidates to interview, with often discriminatory results.
So at the beginning of the pandemic, with no job prospects on the horizon and bills piling up, Nunn started her own Substack, The Department of Salads, after her friends told her they enjoyed the photos of the lockdown salads she’d been posting on twitter (“Here is another damn salad.”) What began as a lark—even a joke—now pays her living expenses and brings her professional joy and accolades. A few weeks after our discussion over Zoom, her now wildly popular Substack was featured in The New York Times, bringing in valuable eyeballs to a woman who, because of her age and a discriminatory hiring algorithm, was previously unable to land even an interview for a food writing job she “could have done in her sleep,” as she told me, at the Washington Post.
Last Tuesday, she posted this hopeful tweet:
On the same day as Nunn’s tweet, the Washington Post Guild came out with this damning report, which asked of itself, “What does true fairness look like? Whose voices deserve to be centered?” Though the report emphasized the need to recruit and mentor more minorities, never once did it mention the need to seek out and hire older women or to hear our voices, which are being drowned out in an attempt to snag younger subscribers. Why? Because that’s who advertisers want. Even if 93% of women between the ages of 40 and 60 make all or most of the financial decisions in any given household.
Yes, I know. This makes no sense.
Annette Young, an older French TV presenter for France 24 who has the good fortune of still appearing young in a profession that pushes out its older females once they start to look it, read my previous Substack on ageism and invited me to attend the International Journalism Festival in Perugia last week, where we spoke on the topic of, you guessed it, ageism. (I love that her last name is Young and we were talking about being old. Life’s funny like that.)
The day before my panel, I attended a different panel on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the newsroom, hoping to get a sense of what was being said or done or studied, data-wise, regarding ageism in recruiting. The two smart, young women who spoke on the panel had gathered informative statistics on all aspects of DEI…except age. Afterward, I went up to one of the panelists and asked her why. She apologized for leaving out ageism—one of the only isms we, as a society, still accept and ignore—and said when she saw the topic of our panel, she suddenly realized the omission.
American women of my generation, I told her, have been shafted since we entered the profession. First we were discriminated against for our youth. Then we lost money to care for infants without paid leave; were mommy-tracked once back at work and paid less than our male coworkers (I was once paid $39,000 to my male colleague’s $200,000); and discovered that our salaries did not cover the cost of our non-subsidized childcare. Why? Because the U.S. government has refused to get involved in figuring out the childcare piece of the employment puzzle, and our corporate systems are still based on one parent—cough cough, the mother—staying at home and relying on her husband for healthcare. (Woe be to those of us, like me, who decided to get divorced while still raising small children in America.) Then, suddenly, just as our children were grown, our time expanded, and our childcare expenses transmogrified into college tuitions, we were aged out! Right when we were eager, experienced, and needing the healthcare, benefits, income, and stability that a full-time job in a country without a safety net provides.
She understood, she said. And she thanked me for speaking up.
But it’s not my job, I thought, to be the only voice out there screaming. If the Emperor has no clothes, and American capitalism holds no place for older women, and young female journalists leading a panel on diversity, equity, and inclusion at an international journalism festival are both unaware of their older female colleagues’ plight and not gathering data to prove it, it is not their ignorance or avoidance of our situation that is to blame but rather our silence and shame over it.
After admitting my own hiring struggles out loud at our panel, an older woman in the audience walked up to me with tears in her eyes. “I’m 51 years old,” she said. “I have thirty years of journalism experience, I just got fired, and no one will hire me. Thank you for sharing your story.” Then, masked, we hugged. Meanwhile, nearly every single day my website inbox receives at least one missive, if not more, from readers of Ladyparts, saying some version of, “Thank you for telling my story. I felt less alone reading it.”
Hello? Women! Older women especially! Thank you for your private letters of solidarity. I love them, but if we don’t speak out publicly about ageism, if we don’t own up to our own struggles and put faces and names to our plight the way Emily Nunn has so bravely done, day after day, the problem stays invisible. And yet, the issue remains: how do we share our stories of ageism in hiring when every single legacy publication to which I might have pitched this story is guilty of hiring bias against older workers?
Like Nunn, I’ve given up trying to find a full-time job. Ghost me once, shame on you. Ghost me a hundred times, shame on me, ageism, and AI. If robots are deeming both my resume and me over-the-hill and unworthy of even an email back, let alone an interview; if legacy publications are as guilty of these biased hiring practices as anyone else, there’s little I can do to combat ageism through normal channels.
So! This publication? It’s not only my job right now, it’s my mission. And I’m the motherfucking CEO. I plan on filling these pages with all the older lady news that no one else, alas, sees fit to print.
I am profoundly grateful for this gesture, which made me cry and changed my life. But, suffice it to say, health insurance patronage is not a solution to our broken system. Universal healthcare is. Yes, I know I sound like a broken record, but we should all be screaming this all day, every day, until it happens.