As a country and an industry, we’re particularly lousy at knowing how to talk about age. We’ve been told all our lives that it’s impolite to ask about it, and we have a hard time untangling our fears from the facts. Instead we ignore aging, laugh it off—or try to ward it off with the help of a thriving anti-aging industry.
These techniques are now cultural norms. Look no further than the "over the hill" jokes on most birthday cards. Todd Nelson, a psychology professor at California State University at Stanislaus, points out that no one would ever send a card mocking its recipient’s race or religion; he points to these birthday quips as proof of our tendency to think of getting older as something to be ashamed of.
Ageism in the workplace is especially pernicious—a subject I took on in recent weeks in Havas PR’s latest annual trends report. Baby boomers are plagued by the perception that they will require extra training and patience to get up to speed on technology, leading to a spike in job listings that explicitly state a preference for "digital natives." Other companies are intentionally reducing the average age of their workforce to save money. At the same time, more boomers are delaying retirement for financial reasons. And 65 percent of older workers tell the EEOC they see their age as a barrier to getting a job. All this pits generations against each other.
Additionally, research shows that women experience ageism earlier than men, which nods to an issue that’s a particular problem in advertising: male privilege-slash-sexism. In our industry, ageism is multilayered. Not only are we battling the same discrimination issues as other industries, but age is also a dirty problem around the ads themselves. The industry doesn’t seem to have room for many over 40, either in the workplace or in marketing materials. Once we reach that milestone, is invisible the new normal?
It can’t be. We have to evolve our thinking and create a language around aging workers that acknowledges both facts and feelings. Fact: By 2030, the number of Americans age 65 and over is projected by the Census Bureau to reach about 71.5 million. And the share of seniors age 65 and over in the U.S. working population could rise sharply—from about 19 percent in 2017 to 29 percent in 2060.
In coming years, expect talent leaders to create and enforce hiring and employment policies to reduce ageism, for instance ensuring that training and development are offered to all workers and that the employee handbook explicitly outlines policies on age discrimination. Look for more honors like Campaign’s Digital 40 Over 40 awards, which place value on institutional knowledge as well as energy and innovation.
And when it comes to selling more stuff to more people at a fair price, let’s get a better handle on which consumers are most active and what they’re willing to pay. According to the 2017 Home Buyers and Sellers Generational Trends Report, buyers ages 37 to 51—those in their peak earning years—purchased the highest-priced homes. The average new car buyer, too, is getting older and richer.
Old and cool are no longer mutually exclusive. A couple of years ago, Céline chose Joan Didion, then 80, as the face of its spring line. American Apparel invited 62-year-old Jacky O’Shaughnessy to model underwear, and absolutely no one is more seductive than 68-year-old actor Jessica Lange (although 71-year-old Susan Sarandon gives her a run for her money). George Clooney, 56, just gets better with age. And let’s talk about 68-year-old Bruce Springsteen, whose Broadway show has been so acclaimed that he’s added dates, and 70-year-old David Letterman, who’s come out of retirement to host a Netflix special. Look, too, to the aging of the morning news anchor (53-year-old Hoda Kotb and 63-year-old Gayle King were recently appointed far past their former sell-by dates, while Jane Pauley earned her seat as host of CBS News’ "Sunday Morning" at the age of 65). And Nicole Kidman (50), Gwyneth Paltrow (45) and Reese Witherspoon (41) are still "It Girls" well past their ingénue heydays.
Not only are we never too old to entertain, we’re never too old to lead and innovate. At 70, Mitt Romney is considering getting back into politics. Sheryl Sandberg, 48, has helped Facebook to grow up. Jeff Bezos, 53, is running the company that made him the world’s richest person. The Kauffman Foundation found that three-quarters of all new entrepreneurs are between the ages of 35 and 64, with the highest percentage age 45 or older. And the age of Nobel Prize winners when making a discovery averaged around 38 in 2000, representing an increase of six years since 1900. As The New York Times puts it, "There is [good] reason to keep innovators around longer: the time it takes between the birth of an idea and when its implications are broadly understood and acted upon. This education process is typically driven by the innovators themselves."
As they say, wisdom comes with age. These days, spending power, chicness and innovation do, too. As I was finishing this piece, I came across this blog post, which made me even more certain: It’s long past time to change the way we talk and think about age. We’ve been getting the narrative all wrong.
Marian Salzman is CEO of Havas PR and chairman of the Havas PR Global Collective.