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Is ageism in the workplace the last civil right to be conquered?

Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger are rock legends and working in their 70s. Why can't the rest of us do that, if we want to?
Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger are rock legends and working in their 70s. Why can’t the rest of us do that, if we want to?

Okay, I know there are far greater civil rights that need to be achieved first, like the global equality of all regardless of gender, color, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Those definitely come first. Ageism, however, is one of those things that people forget about. It’s certainly an issue, as society is constantly pushed into thinking that youth and beauty count for everything. While representing and producing more variety in age imagery in marketing and entertainment output is improving, it’s not really improving in the business world.

There was a time, many years ago, where a young graduate could find a job in a company, find a mentor–either in a manager or more experienced worker–to help guide that person’s career and help that person rise within the company. The young graduate would stay with that company for many years, perhaps even until retirement. When I entered the work field, I already knew those days were over. As a young graduate, I already knew it was a world where it was everyone for themselves, nobody was going to guide you and help lift you up. There were few to no mentors for people available. If you were to move up, it was by sheer luck, or hard work, and nothing else. Nobody was going to recognize you for a promotion unless your job was your life and you produced insane sales number or stats in your support (or there was some sort of favoritism/nepotism at play).

Now, this might sound like the usual angst of a Generation-X person like myself. And unfortunately, that has almost always been the case with just about everyone of my generation that I know.  But now we are facing a different battle altogether, and it’s not just affecting us, but those who might have gotten a little bit of an extra leg up being a few years older than us.  It seems that the millenials are taking over. Are they any smarter than those of us with a few more years’ experience? Nope. But they are cheap, and businesses–for better or worse–are gambling their businesses on the shoulders of this younger generation and leaving those of us who aren’t even close to retirement age out in the dust. I’m not saying that millenials shouldn’t have a chance to find work, but they are easily being favored due to their youth and supposed “digital literacy”.

I can think of several examples where this ageism issue has come to the forefront for me. The first one that comes to mind is a friend from graduate school. She is super smart, has a strong background in marketing and public relations, and worked for many years in both the profit and non-profit sectors. She is highly creative, incredibly well-spoken, and a consummate professional. Add to all of that, she is a delightful person to be around. This makes her a great candidate with loads of experience that would benefit any company. However, beyond sporadic consulting and contract jobs in the last few years, she has had a very difficult time finding a permanent position, as she needs the stability and the benefits package to help support her family. She even lives in the New York City market, where you would think there are a plethora of positions that would be open to her.  Heck, she’s worked on a non-profit company wage for many years, so you’d think she’d even be open to taking a lower wage with a corporate entity, and knowing her, she is. But even when she fulfills everything they ask for in a job opening, employers won’t hire her. She’s trying to figure out what’s not adding up, and ageism is the only thing she can conclude.

I also talked to another friend recently who worked for a large company. She said that there was rumor-like talk that the unofficial company policy was that when employees reached a particular age that was before retirement eligibility, they would start working on pushing those employees out, and bring in significantly younger, less experienced workers to do the same job, simply and soley to save on costs.


I’ve also wondered about this for myself. I’m not exactly a young woman, but in many respects, I’m still a young graduate, as I only graduated from grad school slightly less than four years ago. I’ve had some good positions, but when looking for something new, the pay rate is always just a little too low. Why? Because they are hoping for someone who has lots of experience, but is cheap. I don’t ask for less than what I’ve already made in terms of hourly rates. I’ve been told that the rate I was receiving in the past was fair for experience. I’ve even checked against the STC Salary Database for my area to be sure, and I know this to be true. And yet, recruiters call with opportunities for positions that in some cases, I’m over-qualified for yet offer the equivalent of US$12,000-$25,000 LESS per year than I’d be making at my current rate. Of course I’d like a raise, even a cost-of-living/inflation raise, but at this point, I’m just trying to make the same amount of money. Those lower pay rates would be acceptable for a single person 20 years younger than me, but not someone like me who has more experience.  From what I can tell, this is a move by companies not only to save money by getting cheaper, younger employees, but also a move to edge out older, experienced, reliable workers who are still willing to learn and adapt to new practices at work, but can’t take the pay cut.  This is why my friend and I went back to school–to keep up and learn to make ourselves more attractive prospective employees. That hasn’t exactly worked out the way we planned.

It’s a silent issue, but it’s evidently not just in my head. After doing a simple Google search on the topic, it’s a prevalent problem.  An article put out by Reuters called, “Ageism in U.S. workplace: a persistent problem unlikely to go away” was published just a few months ago, and it reinforces this issue.  To reinforce that this has been an ongoing problem, here are two articles that were published in the last two years that also reinforce this notion:

Forbes – “The Ugly Truth About Age Discrimination” by Liz Ryan, January 2014

AARP – “Forced Out, Older Workers Are Fighting Back” by Carole Fleck, May 2014

Solutions provided in these two articles are not necessarily solutions. Liz Ryan’s go-to solution is to prove to prospective employers that you can fulfill a “pain point” for them, and you are worth the money and experience for it. But how do you know what the pain points are for different companies? They aren’t always so obvious from the outside. The AARP article’s “coping skills” were going back to school, starting a new career, suing an employer, or living off 401K/retirement savings early. Those are not necessarily great solutions. Suing an employer for age discrimination would be hard to do without proof (which is difficult to provide), and going back to school requires money, too. Living off of retirement funds early isn’t a great way to go, either. In the case of my friend and I, we both went back to school and tried to revitalize our careers–or in my case, reboot my career to break into a second career. My career, in my eyes, has barely taken off. I’m still a “new” graduate in many respects. I know it was recommended that I leave the year of my undergraduate graduation off my resume to help against this ageism, but I can tell you that because of my work history, that hasn’t helped (and I already left off the first ten years or so off my resume, since they don’t apply to my current career). What the heck?

In the AARP article, there’s an infographic that says that as of 2014, 58% of American adults believe that ageism starts when employees are in their fifties. I’m starting to question if that number is getting younger, more like at the age of 45. I’m currently 47 at this writing, and I have felt the pinch already. I know people who are in their early fifties who are incredibly capable people in the tech comm world–not just the friend I mentioned here–who are feeling this pinch as well. They attend conferences and local events to stay on top of the latest and greatest information so they can not only network, but also keep their skills and knowledge fresh. Is it an effort done in vain? I’m starting to wonder…

This is a problem that’s universal, not just in technical communications, but in all fields. But I sometimes wonder if more seasoned technical writers and strategists are falling out of favor simply because it’s thought that millenials are not only more digitally savvy, but cheaper labor? Without substansive proof that this is going on, it seems to me that anyone over the age of 40 is going to be having an uphill battle fighting for relevancy in the workplace for several years to come. Anyone over the age of 40 who starts a second career has a disadvantage, as they don’t have many years of experience doing something, yet they are “too old” for the job at the same time.

Do you agree with this observation? Have you experienced age discrimination–for either being “too mature”, or even for being too young for the job? What do you think the solution is for this? What advice do you have for those who are battling this silent fight as they look for employment?  Include your comments below.

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What’s my value as a technical communicator?

I felt like a superhero and could conquer the world--what happened?
I felt like a superhero and could conquer the world–what happened?

I apologize for being absent for so long, and only sharing curated content for the last few months. There have been a lot of changes, and there’s still some transitioning going on, so keeping up with a blog hasn’t been that easy to do.

Even so, it’s a time when I’ve recently been doing a lot of soul searching with regards to my career. It’s take some unexpected turns in the last few months since my long-term contract ended in July. Some of it good, some of it not as good, but all have been learning experiences not only in learning something new, but learning something about myself.

I’ve been reflecting on several jobs I’ve had over the years, and looking at patterns of where things went right, and where things went wrong. Not being so young anymore, I have a certain perspective now that I wouldn’t have had even just a few years ago. I guess with age does come wisdom. I’ve also started to figure out what I want–and don’t want–from my career.

I’ll give you an example of a common pattern that’s happened in my career. I would take a job or an assignment because I needed the money and/or had a certain set of expectations that the experience would help my career. When none of the expectations of that position would have been met, deep frustration would set in, which would yield to depression and feeling stuck. I would be asked to bring certain skills, and was hired due to those skills, but then those skills wouldn’t be used. I would end up trapped in doing something that I could do well, or at least passably, but not something I wanted to do. This has happened several times, and I question why I get stuck in that kind of situation so frequently.

I thought of a job analogy that might explain this differently. Imagine that you had gone to culinary school to become a trained chef . So, as a chef, you are hired at a restaurant to work in the kitchen in a chef role for your cooking skills, and you’re fine with doing salad duty to work your way up, as long as cooking is involved, because that’s your passion and training. But for some reason, the owner has you left out of the kitchen to wait on tables for a while because it will help you understand your patrons. You go along with it for a little while, with the hope that you’ll get to that salad chopping soon. Soon, it becomes apparent that the owner has you, a chef, waiting on tables permanently. It’s not that you don’t have the ability to wait tables, but it’s not what you were hired to do, and it’s not strength. Subsequently, you get upset because the training and expertise is being wasted, and you feel like you were misled, because the job completely changed from the job description given at the time of the application and interview.

Like I said, I’ve had this happen to me several times over the years, and right now, I often feel like I’ve fallen into that “chef” role described above. The difference is that I’m a technical communicator, and what I “cook” is different. I know there are certain things that I do very well. I know I’m a capable person, but I also recognize my weaknesses.  I also know what I don’t want to do. Becoming a technical communicator in my late forties has been the making of a second career. I know I’m still working my way up and gaining experience, but I have prior experience, too. At my age, I’m getting to a point that I’m financially secure enough that I don’t have to keep a job for financial security as much as when I was young, but I do need to like what I’m doing and have a steady, fair-paying income.

This thought process lead me to thinking about what makes an ideal job–whether you are a technical communicator, or have any kind of job, for that matter. I’ve concluded that what makes or breaks your contentment with a job is having the feeling of being valued. The positions where I learned and grew the most, and where I was generally happiest were at jobs where I felt like I was valued for my skills, my insights, and my opinions.  Most often, all I wanted was for my voice to be heard and considered, not heard and pushed aside. I can accept if there’s a valid reason why my idea is not a good one, but “that doesn’t work,” or “that’s not how we do it,” or “everyone’s used to that, so why change it?” doesn’t sit with me too well most of the time. They seem like childish responses. I like to show that I can do the work, and do it well or beyond expectations. I try to push limits where I can, because it helps everyone grow and progress. There was a point in my career when I got accustomed to being dismissed for proposing any ideas or solutions, and so I accepted that my ideas or opinions weren’t valued at all. I lost my “voice” for a very long time. But in recent years, I was invited to use my voice, and as a result, I roared! I grew as a person, because I felt valued because I could contribute some good ideas, even if there were ideas that weren’t used.

But lately, I’ve been unbalanced in what I’ve been working on, and I’ve let that get to me profoundly.  I question whether I’m on the right track to be doing something that uses my skills the right way and makes me feel valued. My confidence has been compromised, and it’s a truly awful feeling that I don’t want taking over my life.

At some point, I'll feel like I'm flying high again.
At some point, I’ll feel like I’m flying high again.

As I continue this soul searching process, it brings me to the question of what makes me a valuable technical communicator? What is it that I do so well that some people appreciate it, and others not as much? What do I need to do to bring out the best worker in me? What do I need to do to grow and help myself create new opportunities while providing the valuable know-how I already possess?

I am curious as to what other technical communicators think, based on their experiences. I know of several technical communicators who are also in flux with their careers as well–between jobs or having taken new jobs recently. The technical communications field is not an easy one, as it is rife with both short and long-term contracts, people who don’t understand what the value of tech comm as a whole is, and situations where people don’t understand how to best utilize us.  What are your experiences? Have you gone through the same roller coaster rides that I’ve been career-wise? What has made your career as a technical communicator worth the past hardships? What do you think is the value of a technical communicator?

Include your comments below! I would really like to hear and share experiences with others.

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Oh, the Academian and the Practitioner should be friends…Engaging TechComm Professionals

The farmer and the cowman--I mean, the academian and the practitioner should be friends...
The farmer and the cowman–I mean, the academian and the practitioner should be friends…

I attended the IEEE ProComm at the University of Limerick, in Limerick, Ireland last week. I was absolutely gobsmacked months ago when a presentation proposal I sent in for this conference was actually accepted. I figured, why not? I’m always looking to expand my tech comm circle, so I had hoped that this would help in this endeavour. I made some great new connections, and I was glad for that, and I certainly enjoyed the sessions I attended.

One thing that was very different about this conference, unlike the other tech comm conferences I’ve attended thusfar, was that this particular conference focused more on the academic side of tech comm. I found out, through inquiry, that while all were invited to this conference, there was definitely a very strong bent toward academia. There is nothing wrong with that, but the depth of this academic frame of mind is not something I’ve dealt with since I graduated from NJIT three years ago.  I understand that academia has its own rules and ways of doing things, but it was definitely…different. Not in a bad way, but different.

Up until this point, I had attended what I’ll call “practitioner” conferences. I’ve chose the word “practitioner” rather than “professional” because in the end, we’re all professionals at what we do in the technical communications, whether we teach and do research, or are out in the corporate world making things happen. Thus those out there in the corporate world I’m choosing to call practitioners. Some practitioners do teach, and some academians do corporate work, but they don’t always overlap. I wanted to clarify this before I move on with my narrative here…

Anyway, as I started to say, up until this point, I had attended conferences that had a stronger practitioner’s bent to them. Most speakers would be people who had been out there battling it out in the corporate masses, and sharing their experiences and knowledge attained from those experiences with others. I often attribute the fact that I got my last job with BASF because of information that learned through one of these practitioner events, because it was something that the company could use beyond analytical theories. Speakers at these practitioner conferences are those who are in the trenches every day, putting to practice all those theories about content strategy, revising them, applying them to businesses globally.

So, attending a mostly academic conference like the IEEE ProComm was a bit eye-opening. Many of the talks were summaries of research that had been done on a variety of topics, and peer reviewed, which was all well and good. I found that the sessions that I could connect best to were the ones that were given by practitioners, practitioners who were also academians, or academians who had a foothold as consultants outside of the academy. There were plenty of sessions whose topics were relevant to the corporate world, but they failed to deliver completely on something new or to provide any revelations to me. There were also summary sessions that provided research conclusions which were incorrect or inaccurate from practitioner perspectives, or elicited the feeling of “…and why are you researching this topic again, and what is its relevency?”

I spent a good part of my time networking with people who happened to be practitioners studying for advanced degrees or had an advanced degree. I particularly connected with one woman who happened to come out of the same NJIT program that I did. (We weren’t classmates, as she started the semester after I graduated, but we knew or had many of the same professors.) She’s been a practitioner much longer than I have, and as she had recently graduated from the NJIT program. NJIT people rarely attend these conferences, so if we do find each other, we tend to flock together a bit. She and I spent a lot of time comparing notes from our experiences and concerns that we had not only about our own program, but other programs as well.

The main gist of our conclusions was that this disparity between the academy and those in practice was discouraging. We both felt that while there were several technical communications programs that did help with job placement and practical experience while still in the studying process, not enough were. Additionally, some of the information that was being given to students about the realities of working in tech comm weren’t accurate or up to date. This is a disservice to both those who do research and especially to students who have to go out in the “real world”.  In order to not make it sound like I’m placing any blame on academia alone, practitioners also have a responsibility to be active in helping to groom future technical communicators as well. My NJIT colleague and I talked about we might be the first two members of an alumni advisory committee that we’d like to start (of course, NJIT doesn’t know this yet), because we felt that we could bring back our experiences either as instructors or merely as advisors to help professors and students keep up to speed with what’s happening outside the virtual or literal campus walls.

Now, in saying all this, I don’t mean to step on ANYONE’s toes in this discourse. Far from it! While I’m sure you can tell that I lean on the side of being a practitioner, this doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the academic side at all. I’ve been there. I’ve taught, too. However, there were just too many conversations in which I wanted to say to a few professors that only teach and do research, “REALLY?? Are you serious?”, knowing well that they were serious. I understand that many universities also have a hard rule about the need to do publish and research to keep one’s professorial job, so that can’t be easy to balance all of it.

Aunt Eller meant business when she had to "encourage" everyone to get along.
Aunt Eller meant business when she had to “encourage” everyone to get along.

When I first started meeting people at the ProComm conference, they assured me, as a first-time attendee, that this was a friendly group and it was easy to get to know others. This proved to be true. Just like the STC Summit and other conferences I have attended, the people were friendly, helpful, intelligent, and eager to “talk shop” with each other. I welcolmed that, and have found that these sentiments seem to be universal with all technical communicators. However, as time went by, that difference and angst between the academians and practitioners, while mild, was still palpable. The entire conference, I had a song running through my head from the American musical, “Oklahoma” called, “The Farmer and The Cowman (Territory Folk)”. (If you haven’t seen the musical before, you can watch the YouTube video of the song.) Essentially, the message of the song is that the two groups really had the same interests at hand in the end, and they needed to learn to cooperate more to make the goal of being the new state of Oklahoma work. I’m hoping that my role in this, on some level by opening up this conversation, is that I play the role of Aunt Eller from the same musical. She gives the advice at the end of this song by singing,

I’d teach you all a little sayin’
and learn the words by heart the way you should,
I don’t say that I’m no better than anybody else,
but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!


The Living Bridge at the University of Limerick.  Looks like a good place to start to "bridge" the gap.
The Living Bridge at the University of Limerick.
Looks like a good place to start.

While I don’t think our difference as as strong as the farmers or the cowmen of Oklahoma, I’d like to think that we can come together much more easily and bridge that chasm more quickly and completely. We all have the same goal, after all–to continue to make technical communications a top notch field and create superior technical communicators. How can we go wrong with a goal like that?

My own view is that more needs to be done to connect academia with practitioners. I know that the STC-PMC, for example, has been very active in the past year working with technical writing students at Drexel University in Philadelphia. They are always looking for more local schools to connect with. I’m sure there are other outreach programs out there, but how many exactly, whether it’s through STC or IEEE or any other professional group out there? I know that I’m going to try to reach out to my own program at NJIT in the next week and see if I can offer any help. What can you do?

What do you think? I know a lot of my readers fall on both sides of this issue, and several straddle both. I’d love to hear what you think, and let’s get the conversation started on this!