Let's pretend you're 55 with a pedigree resume -- in financial services, marketing, management, information technology -- whatever. You're laid off from a good job where you've been a model employee for 27 years, climbing the ladder to division vice president. A tough economy might make excuses for your misfortune.
Nevertheless, you're highly motivated. You perk up the resume, touch up the hair color, and get out there to pound on employers' doors. You network online, volunteer time for a professional association, attend job fairs, and call almost everyone you've ever met to get some referrals.
Two years later you've distributed 500 resumes, conducted a dozen telephone interviews without success, and even taken a temporary job at a much reduced wage -- work beneath your acumen. Nobody really cares that you've been erased from mainstream business.
For the next decade or two you're going to struggle with rejection, unemployment, underemployment, demeaning temp jobs, loneliness, and a growing sense of losing it all.
Welcome to the rest of your life. Welcome to ageism.
How does it feel?
"Middle age, you're so vulnerable," said Judi Kaplan, an unemployed executive recruiter speaking to Michael Winerip, a reporter and columnist for The New York Times. After over a year of uncertain temp jobs, a once-buoyant optimist had become rightfully discouraged.
This scenario is actuality for millions of Americans. And Judi has something more in common with her peers than simply being middle age and out of work. She's also a Baby Boomer, a woman who came of age during the consciousness revolutions of the 1970's when feminism and activism challenged recruitment advertising, then segregated between jobs for men and much lesser jobs for women.
Her cohort put a white-hot magnifying lens on gender discrimination, forever banishing "Gal Friday" ads from the nation's newspapers. Her peers pushed through the barriers blocking women from careers in the professions and work once considered only suitable for men -- from heavy equipment operation to military command.
I frequently wonder, "Where are they now?" Where are all the women who banded together to constitute one loud voice shouting down gender-discriminating corporations, institutions, and governments?
Where have all the young women gone? Long time passing.
Recently I opened my newspaper to The Wall Street Journal Sunday section, my eyes boring into a headline: "Out of Work, Out of Options and Over the Hill."
The reporter began her article describing 55-year-old Henry Dietz, who was laid off from an advertising agency. Unemployed for 20 months, he had already drained his 401(k) retirement account. He had already spent his personal savings and even skipped attending family funerals to avoid travel expenses.
The reporter then added dimension to Henry's story. According to the U.S. Labor Department, about 14.9 million Americans are unemployed, a statistic that does not include those who are underemployed or who have simply given up trying to find a job. About 2.2 million are 55 or older, with about half of this number represented by those who have been unemployed for six months or longer.
Lingering on this article, I then asked myself, "Where are all the Boomer men who, when they were young, added their voices to the causes of feminism and racial equality?"
Where have all the young men gone? Long time passing.
One plausible answer: We've grown up, left our idealism in the past, and been busy with careers and children. We've lost touch with a collective sense of mission to change the nation and make its egalitarian ideals more congruent with social and cultural realities. Maybe we've lost touch with a deeper sense that we're all in this together, employed, underemployed and unemployed.
The Journal article didn't address underlying injustice. A riveting headline declared as fact: out of work, out of options, over the hill. An ageist headline reinforced age discrimination as normative. The article offered only palliative care: how-to advice about dismantling your life so you can cope with diminished retirement prospects, diminished healthcare, and diminished real estate holdings.
When is our generation going to address these threats to well-being in our aging? When are we going to come together and fight pernicious ageism and its malevolent spinoff, age discrimination? When are we going to change the rules so Henry and Judi can see their future in another headline: "With Work, Full of Options, Conquering the Hill"?
When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?