Is it ageism or is it just me?

Jan. 17, 2024, 11:32 p.m.

During my year as a Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI) fellow at Stanford, which concluded last August, I was surrounded by people far smarter than myself.

Being surrounded by smarter people is a common occurrence for me. But this time, it was mostly young people who figuratively, and occasionally literally, made my neck snap in an admiring response to their intellect.

I expected that at a place like Stanford, and embraced the experience. But the “real world” marketplace isn’t as welcoming as the Farm, and although there were 37 fellows in my cohort, I’d venture to say that only three, maybe four, actually needed to work once we left Palo Alto.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of my cohort-mates, I needed, and still need, to work for a living. When my magical year at Stanford ended — even before that — I began the drudgery of looking for work again. 

Let me be clear: I do not feel sorry for myself at all. I’ve had a wonderful life (apologies to Jimmy Stewart), got to raise my kids by myself as a single dad, worked with many, many amazing, talented people and had the opportunity to attend Stanford. 

But let me also be clear: Being old ain’t easy, particularly as a job seeker.

I’ve never embraced the victim culture, blaming something or someone else for one’s own problems and mistakes. It’s foolish, mistaken and bad form.

So when I began applying for many, many jobs in this low-unemployment, worker-friendly economy and got nowhere despite what I believed — actually, what I knew — were excellent credentials, I resisted the urge to blame it on ageism, even though it seemed that in many cases my age was a consequential barrier.

Well, not just my age, but age-adjacent issues. The presumption that because I’m an old guy:

  • I didn’t know the tech world,
  • I couldn’t keep up with younger people/lacked the necessary energy required for the job,
  • I wouldn’t fit into the culture of wherever I was applying,
  • I would be too expensive (Ha!),
  • And others.

Each of these “reasons,” with the possible exception of my knowledge of tech, is wrong, and easily refuted by facts I could present. (I know some tech, not anywhere near as much as younger folks, but am not willing to die on the “I know tech” hill.)

My energy level is demonstrably high (hey, I climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro 10 years ago when I was already old, and played touch football every weekend for 27 years until I ruptured my Achilles tendon in 2022). I have fit into many work cultures over many years and adapt quickly and happily. 

And I am not only not expensive, I can be had for a song!

But I kept getting “Unfortunately, we have decided to pursue other candidates” emails. 

Who are these other candidates, I wondered? I made the assumption that no matter who they were, they all were at least 20 years younger than I. Probably more like 35 years younger. 

But here I was, an experienced, motivated guy, highly educated, easygoing, plays well with others. Blah blah blah.

Nothing. Zilch. 

I applied to probably 300 jobs in the course of six months, being (fairly) careful to make sure the jobs matched my background, at least enough not to be completely out of touch with reality.

Of course, no one would ever admit that my age was a reason, much less the reason that I didn’t even clear the first hurdle. I couldn’t prove that, and what would be the point of trying to prove it? To sue someone? To try to barge my way in where I wasn’t welcome? Not my style.

Still, the feeling gnawed at me. Am I simply too old, or is there something else? Perhaps it isn’t my age at all. 

Perhaps it’s me. That was a dispiriting thought. But one I had to consider.

When I look in the mirror, I see an older guy, sure, but an energetic, eager-to-be-of-value guy, a guy who went back to school full time years after most people retire.

But I know that when others look at me, all they see is my age. I get that.

The more I tried to explain it away as ageism, the more I realized that may be a part of it. But more likely, somehow, some way, I was the problem. That’s a tough one to handle.

I don’t have the answer. To be more candid, I truly wish someone would tell me the honest answer. I can take it. I think. 

I can handle rejection, believe me. I worked in the entertainment industry for 25 years. Rejection was like morning coffee. But at least then, I was familiar enough with the behavior and the language to know the reasons behind it.

“Your script is wonderful, it’s just not right for us at the moment,” was entertainment speak for, “Good lord, that is an awful script.” I understood that.

Now, I wish someone would tell me, “You’re not getting the jobs because…” and fill in the blank. I’ve always been a “better to know than not know” person.

I still need to work, but I’ll never “apply” for another job again. They don’t read my resume. They don’t want me. I may be old, but I understand that.

I also know I have much left to do, much to give, and there are people and places which will “get” that I can be of real value to them, “fit in,” and not cost them more than they believe I am worth. I’ve always been a realist, but also an optimist. My path going forward may be relatively short, and likely untraditional, but that’s fine. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, but an outsider who can write, communicate well, create and develop content, appreciate younger generations and put ego aside. 

I’m still here, still standing and able and eager to help.

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