Scenes from the front lines of a mad, mad ageist world
By Sheri Radel Rosenberg
The industry I’ve called home for many years, advertising, has always been notoriously youth obsessed. Chasing the latest demographic with an alphabet letter has been the standard operating procedure since I entered the business in the ’90s. And with the fragmentation and immediacy of media nowadays, there’s desperation in the air to always understand and somehow stay ahead of what the cool kids are doing. And truly, there’s no place for those much past 40, let alone 50. At some point in your adult life, people will stop getting your references. And that moment is a real turning point. And it makes you feel old.
When being the cool aunt is so not cool
Because of this not so dirty little secret, I found myself feeling the burn a few years back. A lot of young women in the industry were telling me I reminded them of their “very cool aunt.” Yikes. When did that happen?
And then just before Christmas, a friend in the industry who is younger than me leaned in over holiday cocktails and asked quietly, “How old are you anyway?” This coming on the heels of a particularly epic photoshoot where I felt like Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School.” I wondered how, if every other part of me had changed, was I still doing the same thing career-wise I was doing in my younger life? I don’t wear the same clothes I did in my 20s. I don’t have the same boyfriend. I don’t party the way I used to. So why on Earth was I doing the same thing for a living?
Many people don’t want to stop doing what they’re doing. And that’s great. It should be your right as an experienced and brilliant vet to keep on keepin’ on if you’re doing what you love. But for me, I got the more than sneaking sense I should move on. I don’t want anyone telling me I’m like their aunt. And I don’t want to be the oldest person on set. I also don’t want to pretend I’m something that I’m not. You couldn’t pay me to go back to being 25. I’m a happier person now, of this I’m certain. And I’m most interested in living a truly authentic life. And truth be told, I’ve outgrown agency life.
What’s even worse than the ageism is the notion that experience no longer has value. I can only speak to advertising, but that experience is no longer valued. Smart production is no longer valued. The value comes from youth and speed. But the funniest part of that is that in order to be scrappy and fast, you need to know what the heck you’re doing. That’s the rub right there. Why let an industry define your worth, particularly when you’ve probably never felt more on point in your life?
But there are zealots who get it. The bombastic Cindy Gallop comes out in favor of age all the time. And my former home, CP+B, has brought back Alex Bogusky who, at 55, is a bit of a unicorn. I don’t know many people who can get a gig in advertising at 55, let alone 50. And by the way, this ageist thing is not only prevalent when it comes to women; I know men are feeling it too.
If the industry won’t grow up, you need to
So kick off the duvet, lose the pity party, and reinvent. Find new ways to contribute and prosper at work. Constantly flex and adapt and find employers and causes and passion points that value what you have to offer. If thoughts of being phased out because of your age are keeping you up at night, phase yourself back in. Chances are you are totally worth it. My reinvention continues and I’m loving writing for everyone from internal agencies to PR firms and beyond. My takeaway? If advertising agencies can’t flex and adapt to an aging workforce, then go make your own way. And never feel that it’s too late, because it never is. If you really look at your career, are you still totally happy doing what you’re doing as you get older? If not, it may be time for a change.
At its best, advertising is an industry that affects pop culture and brings about change. At its worst? It’s a rudderless sycophant that, come to think of it, is probably dealing with an identity crisis of its own, struggling for relevancy in an industry that no longer looks anything like it used to. There’s a real opportunity for advertising to help shape cultural attitudes about age. Youth will always be front and center when it comes to marketing, but don’t count out the rest of us. ‘Cause we still got it. As a member of the first named generation by marketers (X), here’s to getting older and being relevant, vital, and most of all, valued. Isn’t it time to read between the lines?
Sheri Radel Rosenberg has spent a life in advertising. Currently she’s a freelance writer focusing on women at midlife and the power of reinvention. She regularly writes on her own blog and also works with brands to develop content in the areas of women’s health, wellness, fashion, and beauty. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and a ten pound ball of doggie fluff called Khan.
Read here for John Tarnoff’s advice on reinventing yourself
Read here for Intergenerational Retail
Read here for a story on the creativity of 94-year-old John Goodenough