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May 6, 2011
The Age-Old Question
I’ve been in denial, and drowning because of it. No, I didn’t fall off a barge into an Egyptian river. I failed to acknowledge my age’s impact on my current job search. I’m north of fifty and south of sixty, the age where, when I was younger, professionals had been respected and sought after for their wisdom and experience. That was then, this is now, and I should have known better.
In 1985, when I worked in a corporate advertising department, I saw that change starting to happen. The VP of Advertising had just come out of a meeting with the corporate suits and out of the blue told me: “Steve, wait until you’re fifty. No one wants to work with you and your career is dead.” I assumed that because he was at that age, he had been turned down for a promotion or had been looking for a new job. “You’ve got to be kidding. Who wouldn’t hire someone with your experience?” I responded. He shook his head. “No one.” I was convinced he was wrong, but as it turns out I’m the one who’s wrong. I’ve seen it when I apply for jobs and my skills match the requirements line by line but I get no calls. I’ve the confidence and abilities that go with experience but if all things are even, the younger candidate wins. There’s a reluctance to hire someone who may be more expensive or is close to retirement, and the people making the hiring decisions are younger. They’re not going to hire their parents.
For me that couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t feel any less energetic or less creative than I was when I was younger. I’m current with the trends and technology in marketing and advertising because I love the business. Plus, I’m not expensive. I do feel like a person who experiences a near-death event, floating above a lifeless body. Instead of doctors there are job-board searches on websites that post the same jobs with obituary-like listings where job applications go to die. Paper cover letters float by HR people who need keywords to make decisions. Beyond my grasp are thousands of dollars worth of freelance projects that can save me, but all are waiting for something. Strewn on the bed are my self-promotional postcards and on the medical monitoring screens, my marketing emails blink and disappear leaving an “Unsubscribe” message. On the room’s TV, my website goes unnoticed by everyone in the room. I’m alive, of course, but it’s this career near-death scenario that scares me.
Sadly, the highlight of my job hunting day is retrieving the mail. Recently an edition of Newsweek arrived and as I was walking back to the house while reading the cover, the headline made me groan. “The Beached White Male…He Had a Big Job, a Big Office, a Big Bonus. Now He’s All Washed Up and Doesn’t Have a Freakin’ Prayer.” It was illustrated with an image of an executive face down on a beach. I should have rolled the magazine up, handed it to someone, and had them beat me about the head until I was unconscious, which would have been better than reading the article. But I read it, and a wave of depression washed over me. I started to sob and that became an all-out cry. I had felt isolated and alone until the article slapped me around. Not to knock me out, but to wake me up. I realized that even though the author could have easily had me in mind as the subject, it was more about the masses…the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged men like me who are experiencing the same job issues.
Women say that one feels better after letting it all out, which I did. Maybe I should cry more often—or maybe not. But I stopped feeling sorry for myself because I can’t go back in time. I’m making a renewed effort to deal with the present by tweaking my resume, rewriting cover letters, working on new emails and self-promotions, and looking into volunteering and networking more. I’m putting together a blog and hoping to do more art and design work for the fun of it. I’ll keep applying to job openings and if a miracle happens, it happens. What it will take is for an employer with the enlightenment to hire an inexperienced recruit out of college to apply that same enlightenment to the experienced one over fifty.

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Steve James owned and creative directed an advertising and design studio in Buffalo, NY with the un-snappy name of SteveJamesDesign, Inc. Steve and his family now live in Indianapolis where he worked as a Creative Director and he is currently in transition, flux, metamorphosis, segue, or whatever looking for work is now called.

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