I usually end these essays with a quote rather than begin with one but today I am inspired! I have spent the last hour on the elliptical machine, running to nowhere, watching the women’s semi-final matches at the Australian Open, where the oldest woman to reach the semi’s of a Grand Slam, Venus Williams, 36, will play her “baby” sister, Serena, 35, for the championship title. To get there she beat the future of U.S. women’s tennis, Coco VandeWeghe, heir to generations of athletic talent and one of the hardest hitters in the game at the ripe old age of 25.
Now, I am a huge Serena fan and I have become a Coco fan watching this tournament. But I “ran” faster and faster while watching the Venus vs. Coco match, unable to get this quote out of my head: “ Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.” David Mamet. Patrick McEnroe said it best in his post-match commentary, describing Venus’ win, “Her brains and her experience won her the match.” The truth of that remark was evident for those fans who love and understand the game. Venus adjusted on the fly, read her opponent, played to her opponent’s momentary weaknesses and controlled her focus like the master she is. It was not an easy win. But her brains and experience won the match. Let that really sink in. With equivalent skills, brains and experience give you your advantage, and experience comes with tenure.
All so simple and evident. But what does women’s tennis have to do with work? Economists have poured over labor statistics since the last recession and, overall, the recovery has been a robust one. Yet we know that much of the rhetoric of the recent Presidential election focused on how uneven that recovery has actually been. For workers over the age of 55 the job recovery is complex. For example, according to a 2016 analysis of the Current Population Survey data, among workers who were “displaced” – lost or left jobs because the company closed, moved, had insufficient work or their position was abolished – nearly 73% of those who were under 54 were able to get reemployed; only 60% of those between the ages of 55 to 64 were able to get reemployed; and among those workers 65 and over only 27% were able to get reemployed.
Additionally, those who are reemployed are twice as likely to be working part-time if they are between the ages of 45 – 70 than if they are younger, even if they would prefer a full-time job (Koenig, G., Trawinski, L., & Rix, S. (2015) The long road back: Struggling to find work after unemployment. Washington, DC: AARP). To add insult to injury, this same study revealed that this age group, when reemployed, said they were earning less on their current job than they had before. Half were earning less because they were being paid less, 10% were working fewer hours and 39% said both.
Simply stated we are not taking full advantage of a valuable asset in our labor force: experience that comes from attaining a certain age.
When I left GfK MRI, I personally made the decision to leave and, while my immediate boss tried to convince me to change my mind, I think the Management Board was silently glad to shed my salary from their books. Shortly after that I had a drink with a friend from my NYT days. She had moved on to greener pastures after The Times as well, rising to a very senior, revenue-generating position at a media company. Like me, she had recently left, needing to take time for herself. She is not quite but almost a decade younger than I am. During our talk, she told me about the number of offers she had received, the recruiters who had reached out when it became known she was available. She stopped herself and said, “I shouldn’t be complaining. I can only imagine what you’re going through, fending off people who want you.”
My ego was crushed. After 13 years of sterling financial performance, exceptional employee engagement scores and launching new products and services, not one company or recruiter had reached out to me when it was announced that I was leaving GfK MRI. Even now that I’ve established a strong and successful career in an entirely different area, it is hard to write that sentence. It feels shameful.
One of my reasons for writing these essays is that I truly believe that if we openly share the things that are hard, the topics and experiences we feel shame around, we open doors to know ourselves better and to lessen the pain for others. I also have no regrets about my decision to leave. I know that I didn’t want another job in the corporate world. I also know that it felt awful to not be seen as having value.
So today I am in awe of Venus Williams. She believed in herself when probably no one else did. She laughed it off as interview after interview mentioned her age. Today she will be the oldest woman to ever play in the final of a Grand Slam. I’m still rooting for Serena because she’ll be the second oldest woman to ever play in the final of a Grand Slam and, if she wins, the oldest woman to win and she’ll break the record for the most Grand Slam titles in the Open era. Maybe the miles I put on my elliptical machine while getting lost in the tennis match will help me live longer because I have a lot left to do.
P.S. Serena won, the oldest woman to do so. And Roger Federer took the men’s title, the second oldest man to do so. They won with skill, certainly, but also a fair amount of cunning and treachery, using every minute of the experience they’ve accumulated over the decades. I put in 12 miles on my elliptical machine.
“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” –Betty Friedan