Lessons about age discrimination that I learned from my mom

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If my mom were telling you her life story, she would begin with her dad suffering a stroke when she was very little and having to grow up with no money. Despite such humble beginnings, my mom’s career has never been about money. I think my mom genuinely enjoys management, but it has taken a long time and a lot of hardship for her to be able to truly enjoy it.

During my mom’s first job interview, in the late ’60s, she was asked two questions:

1. Does your husband know you’re getting a job?

2. Who will take care of your kids while you’re at work?

My mom passed the interview with flying colors, and she became a Cobol programmer. I loved going to the office with my mom, especially when the computer system went down, because everyone at the office wanted to ask my mom a question.

My dad did not love that stuff. So after 14 years of working, my mom got pregnant and quit work in a last-ditch effort to save her marriage.

After the divorce my mom had two small children and an awkward resume. She had managed a very large team at a very large company years earlier, but the only job she could land was as the secretary for someone who was not qualified to be a secretary, let alone a secretary’s boss. Mom cried a lot. She said no one would call her about jobs because she was 45 years old. By this time I was 21 and could tell her things that she often told me when I was frustrated: Be patient. Once you get an interview, you’ll get the job. And, sometimes you need to send out 100 resumes to get one response.

My mom taught herself C++ at night, after the kids were asleep. She learned Java at another job, where she stole away for long lunches to go to doctor’s appointments with my younger brothers. At still another job, this one at a large credit card company, my mom took the bus to work every day so my brothers could drive the car to school.

All this, and she was still at the bottom of the programming ladder. She reported to a woman who was my age.

If my mom were telling you this story, she’d say this woman was a smart, professional, and a compassionate manager. But every time I tried to imagine reporting to someone 20 years younger than I am, I got sick and sweaty.

Recently my mom got a promotion. Now she manages 11 people at the credit card company, and her new boss made it clear that my mom could move up fast. The first thing my mom did as a manager was use her two weeks of vacation to visit colleges with my brother. The second thing she did was grant a woman permission to work flexible hours so she could be at home with her kid.

It used to be that when I interviewed someone 20 years older than I am, I'd think, “What’s wrong with this guy? Why is he stuck at my level at his age?” But watching my mom navigate her career made me think again: I started hiring people older than I was and while I've only had a few chances to do it, each has worked out well. I realized that I had a bigger problem with the age gap than the people I was hiring. And in all cases, the person I hired had not just a very interesting story but also a lot to teach me, and I felt lucky to have made the hire.

8 replies
  1. Aviva Gabriel
    Aviva Gabriel says:

    I love this post! It’s good to see your understanding of the interrupted and sometimes convoluted career paths that result in a 55-year-old accepting a position where he/she reports to a 25-year-old who has fewer qualifications and far more limited perspective. I empathize with your mother’s initial crying sessions (having been in a similar position), and admire her feistiness in “untrapping” herself. What your Mom did took oodles of persistence and courage, and she’s a real gem for hauling herself out of the prejudice of sexism, ageism, divorce, and the major cultural differences that can occur between generations.

    Many folks my age (members of the dreaded “baby boomer” generation) have been change agents and have fashioned life courses for themselves that took courage and original thinking. But…it has also landed many of us in situations where we’re working well below our ability and reporting to snooty bosses who aren’t even slightly curious about our rich backgrounds, pioneering efforts, and large toolboxes of skills.

    Not following the usual career path – which so many of us who were young teens in the late ’60s – has allowed for wildly rich life experiences that would have been impossible had we followed the “lockstep” route to success.

    In my case, I’ve had the leisure to pursue some of my talents and explore the beaches of Mexico – and have even had the luxury of building a business that I sold to a Fortune 500 company, after which I lived a lifestyle of some relative wealth for many years – but I’ve also discovered that many of my adventures have now led to closed doors, limited options, and lots of ageist prejudice.

    Long story; don’t want to bore folks. But a change in finances has led me to accept a job that pays low wages (not even a salary), with no prospects for growth due to my age, no “flex-time,” an old-fashioned time clock, and is replete with the frustrations that accompany reporting to very young folks without business experience, knowledge of how to manage people/meetings/projects, or much life acumen. And I have to “suck it up” (until I find a new way to support myself and pay my bills).

    I can only remind myself that I “had my fun and days of success,” and tell myself that if I want “out” of this bad situation, I’ll have to get up the guts to do something entrepreneurial and original once again.

  2. Anonnymouse!
    Anonnymouse! says:

    If I were 21 i’d have difficulty imagining working for someone 20 years youger than me as well ;)

  3. Clara
    Clara says:

    I think this post is important, so much so, that you might want to update it so it can receive more attention and spawn more conversation. (You always talk about how you hire people younger than you, how does that feel?)

    My father, a professor, had me when he was 60 and raised me on his own. Luckily this has meant that I’m relatively attuned to age discrimination. Your comment about working for someone 20 years younger making you sweat makes me think of my mother. She’s also a professor and her students, apparently, ‘know it all.’ Both her daughters also seem to think they do. I know this frustrates her in a big way. I wish younger people would have more respect for their elders, in the workplace and at home. Have you ever thought about how respecting one’s elders might translate into the workplace and into social settings? And the differences in terms of ‘respect’ (and whatever that implies) between immigrant children and ‘white’ children?
    I think it might play heavily into social skills.

    On the complete flip side, I wish that older people at work would not tune me out simply because I’m a young woman. Sometimes recruiters want my resume to come with an older version of me. I suppose this goes with paying one’s dues. But apparently my generation doesn’t want to do that anymore.

    Then again, I think that young women face huge inequalities in the work place whether they get paid more than men their own age or not. So it’s not only age, but also gender.

    So being older and a woman, I feel especially sick and sweaty for both my mother and yours.

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