The Twin Challenges of Ageism & Denial

The Twin Challenges of Ageism & Denial

A story in last week’s New York Times described John Fugazzie’s fall from employment grace.  A year ago, he was making $125K/year supervising dairy and frozen food purchases for A& P supermarkets and had founded Neighbors helping Neighbors USA to lend a hand to Baby Boomers in transition.  Today, he is 57 years old and has been out of work for eleven months.

Like many other so-called “older workers,” John’s done everything conventional wisdom tells him he should do to find another job.  He’s sent out hundreds of resumes, networked with peers at job clubs and other venues, and, he’s still unemployed.  Has he been the victim of ageism?  That’s the theme of the Times story, and I’m sure ageism has reared its ugly head.  But, it’s not the only challenge John faces.  He’s also dealing with a self-inflicted wound: denial.

John refuses to believe that both the nature of employment and the definition of “qualified” have changed.  He doesn’t want to accept that many companies today are suffering from “employment dementia” – they can’t remember what you did for them even a week ago. And, he doesn’t want to acknowledge that you can no longer find a new job by using the skills and accomplishments you had in your old job.

What’s the solution?  One of the core principles of career activism is to recognize and adapt to the changes in the world of work as it actually exists today.  We humans are creatures of habit, so I’m not diminishing how hard that is to do … but your career security depends on it.

What exactly does that mean for John and everyone else over 35 in today’s workplace?  We have to reset ourselves in two ways.

First, we have to accept that, despite how senior and successful we may have been in our old job, the only way we will land a new one is if we add new skills and knowledge to our resume.  We have to position ourselves in the job market as a work-in-progress, not as someone who thinks they’ve already learned everything they need to know.

And second, once we land a new job, we must make it our responsibility to overcome our employer’s forgetfulness.  We have to up our contribution level regularly, and we have to make sure our employer notices.  We have to do whatever it takes to make ourselves too valuable to lose today and tomorrow, not yesterday or the day before.

Sadly, it’s unlikely we’ll see the demise of our society’s age bias any time soon.  Its impact can be blunted, however, by dealing with our own denial.  We have to build up our career fitness so we can practice career activism on the job and in the job market.  That’s the best way – the only way – to make sure John’s experience doesn’t become our own.

Thanks for reading,
Peter