Ageism is the one form of discrimination that will impact everyone at some point—whether you’re a freelancer, a creative director, or a CEO. It’s a universal and inevitable problem, and yet employers aren’t very good at protecting their employees from it—they’re the primary culprits, in fact! Presently, incidences of age discrimination in the workplace are actually increasing, impacting designers as young as 40.
Considering the prevalence—that one in four workers have experienced ageism—it can be easy to feel like any measures you take to protect yourself in the workplace are hopeless. But there are a few benefits (if we can call them that) to rampant age discrimination: firstly, there’s federal protection. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against employees who are 40 or older. Some states even have laws that protect employees younger than 40 from age discrimination. And secondly, you’re not alone. Your clients and your bosses may not yet be hip to the changing tides, but there are plenty of seasoned creatives out there who are flourishing as veteran designers, and want to help others do it, too. Here are some techniques for protecting yourself as an older designer.
Own your age
Take the advice of the brilliant and successful communications guru Cindy Gallop: start talking about your age. The more transparent you are—like Tina Essmaker was in this piece for Adobe 99u—the easier it will be to think about your age as an asset.
Some creatives are finding success by doing just that. Take the gents of the ad agency Fallow Fields, who tout themselves as “Old ad guys who have had perfectly amazing careers.” They put the fact that they’re on the “wrong” side of 50 front and center—and they give the ultimate reason for why that makes them so good at their jobs: “When you’re over 50, you just stop giving a fuck. That’s it, zero fucks.”
If you think this kind of direct approach might work in your workplace or with your client roster, it’s worth a try. Talking about our ages is the only way they’ll become less taboo.
Call it out when you see it
The best way to bust stereotypes of older workers is to anticipate them, defy them, and call them out when you see them. There are a few assumptions about older worker’s investment and capabilities that are perniciously common—even if they’ve been proven to be wrong. Here’s a short list of incorrect assumptions that are still commonly believed.
- Young people invest more in developing new skills.
- Young people are more excited by their jobs.
- Older people neglect their health.
- Older people get exhausted by their work.
- Older workers are looking to slow down and coast toward retirement.
- Older workers have less interest in exploring new ideas and opportunities.
If you find yourself confronted with coworkers or bosses whose behavior suggests that they might hold any of these assumptions about you, address them head on, in any way you see fit. You can decide to do that interpersonally or through a legal consultant or HR representative who can help mediate those conversations. But what matters is that you take the action that you feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, acting in anticipation of people’s outdated concerns can go a long way toward helping your career.
Know when to fight it
One of the things that makes ageism so hard to locate or pin down is not just that it’s a subtle prejudice, but also that it intersects with other forms of discrimination—especially sexism and racism. Older women are impacted more than men, and people of color are impacted significantly more than their white counterparts.
About a third of workers over 45 think they could lose their jobs in the next year—and that the job losses would be due to their ages. If you’re in this camp, there are resources to help you fight it. Consider saving pieces of evidence that validate your discrimination claim, like emails or recorded conversations. And if you want to learn more about how the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision can help you, be sure to check out all the useful resources provided by AARP.
Give your résumé a makeover
Every year, AIGA sends out a survey to its membership to learn about the state of the design world. In its 2019 Design Survey, several older members expressed their frustration in confronting ageism in the job search. One member, a 59-year-old white woman, found that ageism was a problem “particularly amongst recruiters as well as company HR departments and hiring managers.” (Incidentally, this woman also quit her last job because of discrimination.)
If you’re on the job hunt, then you know that many companies make no secret of the fact that they’re not interested in hiring older workers. It’s right there in the copy—if you’re not a “digital native,” the job isn’t for you.
There are a few things you can do to make sure that your résumé shows that you’re the right “cultural fit,” as they say, and to help you get your foot in the door.
- Avoid the words “experience,” ‘veteran,” and “seasoned,” while still making it clear that you have that, and you are those.
- Remove some of the telltale dates, like those next to your education. And definitely get rid of the double space after periods! 😉
- Limit your work history to the past 10-15 years. Anything before that probably isn’t relevant.
- Make sure your résumé itself is well-designed—and actually reflects current trends.
This advice might feel like a bandaid on a much larger issue—or that we’re encouraging you in some way to deny your age. But that’s not the intention. Rather, it’s to encourage nuance in tailoring your message, so that your presence on paper doesn’t end the conversation before it has the chance to begin.
Reinvent yourself and your career
Forging a new path late in your career can be daunting, to say the least. But sometimes, especially in an ageist industry, it can be a necessary move. One AIGA member, a 58-year-old white woman, expressed frustration in the Design Survey that the last three jobs she’d taken as a designer have been lateral moves. She said that she’s just had to accept living on a lower salary. “If you’re not being (groomed) into a manager, you plateau quickly,” she wrote.
That’s the reality for many older workers—they hit a plateau. Especially because older, experienced employees are often more expensive. And while switching career paths doesn’t necessarily ensure that you avoid that plateau altogether, it can help to give you more control over the direction your career takes. Some possibilities for reinvention include (but are not limited to) freelancing, consulting, teaching, writing, or even starting your own agency, all of which involve branching out tangentially—staying open to possibility while continuing to grow a strong, supportive network.
That’s part of what made the artist and illustrator Lisa Congdon’s switch to a freelance career possible in her forties. Congdon said of her decision to switch careers that her age was actually a benefit—it made her patient and hardworking. She was able to build her career over time, taking one opportunity as it led to another, slowly building up a roster of clients. “I think one advantage to starting later in life is that I knew who I was already,” she said.
Remember there’s power in numbers
Whatever steps you start to take to better protect and defend yourself from age-based discrimination, remember that you’re not alone. You have the numbers—in your coworkers and extended network—to back you up, however you decide to challenge the status quo. And ageism in design is certainly not going to go away anytime soon. But hopefully, by taking steps to call it out, we can collectively change the conversation around it.