Ageism is everywhere and is the most “normalized” of any prejudice. No matter how experienced you may be or how ideal for a job, once you hit 50, the possibility of being forced to leave your job long before you choose is all too real. And if you do find yourself out work, trying to find a new position can be a maddening process. For women of a certain age, ageism is exacerbated when a good dose of sexism is added to the equation. After striving—and succeeding—at building an ideal career, being marginalized and told that you’re no longer relevant may seem absurd, but in many industries, it’s a bitter reality that can put a serious dent in your sense of self-worth and your financial security.
My own story is just one example. After building a successful career in finance, my corporate job was eliminated. It was a brutal awakening that the path I had been paving for myself for years had ended. When I looked at things from the perspective of my employer, I had to admit that I got it. I realized that if my son Adam and I were being considered for the same job, I could see why they’d prefer hiring him instead of me. He had a hot-off-the-press economics degree. He had no family responsibilities (yet). He could tell better jokes and was a perfect candidate for the after-work sports team. Me? I had one thing going for me: I was great at my job. But in that environment the perception of potential trumped performance.
Like many in the same situation, I soon realized that finding a new position where I could do a similar job at equal pay was not going to be easy. Every employer out there was looking for an Adam—not a me. So I did what I had to: I learned to hustle. I learned how to do payroll. And taxes. And QuickBooks. I worked one day a week as a controller for a manufacturer, and two running someone’s tax office. I got certified as a CFP®. I became an Enrolled Agent. I found my passion for wealth management, and the rest is history. Yes, I persisted.
But as I said, my story is just one of many examples. At just 52, Liz has been searching for a new position for nearly a year after being laid off from the firm where she’d built a very successful career as an organizational leader. Whether it’s because of her age, her sex, or both, no one has offered her the type of role for which she’s qualified. At a time when she should be rapidly accumulating assets to fund her retirement, her financial reality is a significant setback. At 67, Nora would love to be working more, but she can’t seem to add clients to her roster. At 70, Delia is healthy, fit, and extremely accomplished, but she’s burned out after searching long and hard for a job that fits her skills and experience.
What’s most difficult for every one of these women is that each had planned to continue to work into her seventies. However, staying relevant and marketable is much easier said than done—especially for women. According to the AARP, while 72% of women between the ages of 45 and 74 think people face age discrimination at work, that was true for only 57% of men in the same age range. Is it fair? No way. But the only way toeliminate this brutal combination of ageism and sexism is to change the perception that women over 50 are declining or are any less valuable to the workforce than younger workers—both male and female.
The good news is that there are many older women who are actively proving that they are more than capable of making highly valuable contributions in their fields. At age 72, Andrea Mitchell continues to be an active and important voice in journalism. The bona fide “Queen of Media,” Oprah Winfrey has been ranked as the most influential woman in the world. At 64, she’s showing no signs of giving up her crown. Meryl Streep and Elizabeth Warren are 69. Martha Stewart is 77. Nancy Pelosi is 78. All of these women continue to show us all just how relevant—and powerful—women of a certain age can be.
My favorite example (of course) is Ruth Bader Ginsberg. At 85 years old, RBG is known for her tenacity in a career dominated by men. When she broke three ribs earlier this month, she was back at work before she was even released from the hospital. Her commitment and ambition seem to know no bounds. But what about those of us who are not household names and are struggling to remain relevant?
Here are three ways to stay in the game—and keep your bank account flush—no matter what your age:
- Own your ambition.
Don’t buy into the old idea that it’s not “feminine” to be ambitious. (Whatever that’s even supposed to mean!) Take a lesson from RBG: a married Jewish mother, she began crashing through glass ceilings at 17 and hasn’t stopped since. Figure out what motivates you, set your goal, and go for it. No excuses.
- Acquire skills people pay for.
Whether you’re striving to maintain relevancy in your current job or trying to make a change, identify what skills you can add to the list of things you’re great at. Are you a born coach? Is accounting your thing? Could you be a great organizer or a business writer? Explore what sparks your interest and then find a way to improve your marketable skills and excel in your new field of choice.
- Keep hustling.
Working into your seventies at a corporation may have been part of your master plan, but many older workers soon realize that the traditional path is no longer realistic. If that’s true for you, it’s time to jump into the “gig economy.” To see what types of services are in demand today, take a look at the listings on sites like Upwork, Guru, and Fivrr. To learn more about how to keep working in the new world of work, read my blog post Rethinking retirement in the “gig economy.” Don’t stop hustling until you choose to stop working on your own terms.
According to the American Institute for Economic Research, 82% of respondents to a recent survey said that they successfully transitioned to a new career after age 45. While some took pay cuts early on, about half saw an increase in earnings after “a period of hard work and persistence.” It can be done. As my friend Bobbie says, “ageism plus sexism equals sageism.” I love that! Embrace the sage in yourself and show the world just how relevant you are—at any age.
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