The Lady Vanishes – At 45


Life may begin at 40, but for women in the workplace “old age” begins at 45, according to a pilot study on working women and ageism by Women In Journalism.

Seventy-one percent of the survey of 100 women described themselves as “very” or “quite” anxious about being able to go on working at their current level until they were 65, with women as young as 22 worried about the future.”In my office I see older women marginalized and ridiculed “it’s a gradual process and hasn’t yet happened to me, but I’m conscious of it, and more anxious as I age,” said one respondent.


With women now expected to work until retirement at 65 – and even beyond, for those who haven’t got a decent pension – this leaves up to twenty years of a woman’s working life potentially wasted, and the financial consequences, especially for women whose careers have already been disrupted by family life, may be catastrophic. ‘In the last three years, my income has dropped by two-thirds and I’m the main breadwinner,’ said one well-known, successful writer in her late forties.

Sixty percent of the over-45s in the survey believed they’d already been turned down for at least one job or (in the case of freelance writers) assignment because they were perceived as ‘too old’. Sometimes phrases like ‘over-experienced’ or ‘over-qualified’ were used, at others the ageism was overt – ‘I was told I was too old’ said several respondents. ‘I was told nobody wanted to work with older journalists,’ said a woman in her early fifties. ‘I have been told that my age was problem – by a recruitment company,’ said another. One woman, applying for a job, lost out to a less qualified younger applicant, and was then brought in on a freelance basis to fill the resulting skills gap. And she wasn’t the only one: ‘I’ve always seen younger women get the jobs I’ve applied for,’ said a 49 year old, ‘although my qualifications are better.’


Other respondents feel that they are keeping their jobs and assignments by the skin of their teeth as the spectre of ageism hovers over them on a daily basis – ‘if there’s a computer crash, the younger workers assume that you can’t handle the technology – although I’ve been working with Quark for 14 years’, said one 52 year old. Another freelance writer in her fifties covers music stories, but makes sure that her editors never meet her – she is sure that if they realised her age, they wouldn’t commission her any more. Many other freelances also make sure that their age isn’t an issue by hiding behind email and the telephone – a literal interpretation of the adage that middle-aged women are ‘invisible!’

Ageism adds an extra layer to the glass ceiling, because it stops women applying for promotion. ‘There are jobs I wouldn’t even bother to apply for because my age would work as a factor against me,’ was a recurrent theme among respondents. Men in their early and mid-40s could reasonably expect to continue developing their careers, but this is the age at which women feel that unless they ‘look ten years younger than their age’ – as several respondents emphasised that they are careful to be – then they will be considered ‘old’. ‘I wanted to apply for a position I was ideally qualified for,’ said one woman, ‘but was told that the senior editors (men) didn’t want to work with a woman their own age. It went to a 30 year old, with few contacts, who frequently had to ask for help.’


Although women have been working their way up the career ladder in significant numbers since the 1960s and 70s, and you therefore might expect to see a good representation of older senior women in their forties and fifties by 2004, there is a real dearth of role models at this age. Many of those who break the glass ceiling do so when they are comparatively young. Even in offices where more women are employed overall than men, such as in women’s magazine offices, there is an astonishing lack of senior women in their fifties. Forty-nine percent of respondents said there were NO older role models in their offices and 14% said there was only one older woman working at a significant level of seniority.


This doesn’t just mean that women aren’t being promoted, because the numbers of older women drop at every level compared to men. Even where they have not reached senior positions, they are still more likely to be outnumbered by men as they age. Of course, men are vulnerable to ageist sackings or lack of recruitment too – several respondents commented ‘very few people of either sex over 45!’ or ‘the men have many of the same problems’ – but it is more acute for women. Seventy percent of the survey commented that there were proportionately more older men than older women at every level in their offices or in the companies they dealt with.

Getting a job is one thing – losing the one you have is entirely another. Those who had suffered from this noted that, once again, men were also vulnerable, although not quite to the same extent, to ageist redundancies, where older and better paid workers are the first to go. ‘I was a part of a general cost/experience cull because the management wanted to replace us with cheaper, less experienced workers,’ said one woman. On the freelance front, others identified cost-cutting as a reason why more experienced writers are priced out of the market. Many freelances said that fees hadn’t changed in years – or even decades – making it much harder for older writers, with more responsibilities, to earn a living. One writer is frequently told by an editor that someone on work experience will take the assignments she turns down, for the glory of getting a byline, so he doesn’t need to pay more than £40, including expenses, for a piece.


Of course, ageism is often justified by saying that it’s necessary, either for cost reasons or because an older team will be out of touch with the market. However, with the population itself ageing every year, is the media industry scoring itself a massive own goal in the chase for youth? Most magazines and newspapers now have to fight hard to maintain their circulations as readers drop away every year, and it is interesting to speculate on whether young and youth-orientated editorial and advertising departments are, in fact, getting increasingly out of touch with the population as a whole, and whether ageism is damaging the industry as much as it is damaging the individual. ‘Who bothers to buy women’s magazines any more?’ asked one respondent. ‘Apart from Good Housekeeping, none of them are interested in talking to me.’ ‘Look at how few features tell the stories of people over 45, especially women,’ comments another. ‘At 49 I’m one of the oldest members of staff,’ said a third, ‘although I’m exactly the target age of our reader.’


Those who had worked abroad commented that ageism seems to be a peculiarly British problem, and were surprised at how entrenched it was. ‘I made a major error,’ said one North American, ‘not to take into account how bad attitudes towards older workers are in the UK – universally negative.’ Two or three others had moved, or were moving to Europe because there was ‘plenty of work’ but this is not an option open to everyone because they may not have the languages required.


There is a general assumption that women dream of ‘downsizing’, earning less and getting away from office politics, and this is used as a convenient excuse for not worrying about these issues. However, like men, most women now need to earn an income. Gone are the days when housewives did a little job to earn ‘pin money’, thankfully giving it up when their older husband reached retirement and could keep them both on his comfortable pension. Many women now are equal, sole or main breadwinners or are on their own. Down-sizing may indeed be a dream, but over 90% of women are very aware that it is dangerous to confuse dreams with reality. Just over 50% of the survey emphasised that they really needed to go on earning until retirement and another 43% wanted to go on working at their current level rather than being down-graded and paid less.


71% of women are worried about being forced out of their careers as they reach their 40s and 50s.
‘Old age’ begins at 45 – 60% of the over 45s have experienced direct age discrimination.
49% of women see NO older, senior role models in their offices, and another 13% only know one.
70% see older men outnumbering older women at every level.
93% don’t believe that ‘down-sizing’ is a realistic dream – they want or need to go on earning a proper income until they retire.
Women are no longer housewives earning ‘pin’ money for luxuries, but key income earners.
For further enquiries call Alexandra Campbell on 01795 536891

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