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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.

Seriously?

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.