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Age discrimination is a problem. Botox isn’t the solution

October 27, 2021, 6:02 PM UTC

Even as companies struggle to hire amid labor shortages and the so-called Great Resignation, older workers are having trouble finding jobs. Particularly women.

Sixty-nine percent of female workers over 40-years-old, who were unemployed in June, were out of work for more than six months, according to a survey released by AARP last week. One reason? Age discrimination. Thirty-one percent of women who’ve looked for a job since turning 40 said age discrimination was an impediment, according to the survey.

“Right now we have more job openings than people to fill them and yet people are feeling age discrimination at the same time,” said Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resilience programming at AARP.

I’ve written quite a bit over the years about other kinds of discrimination, against women, LGBTQ folks and people of color, but in reporting on age I noticed something: There’s a lot of victim blaming. Instead of garnering respect for their experience and skills, older workers are dismissed as tech neophytes, too clueless and wrinkly for the work world.

In other words, there is age discrimination even in the way people talk about age discrimination.

Older workers get condescending (and obvious) job search advice like: don’t use AOL or Hotmail or any other outdated services for your email, limit the years of experience on your resume to 15 or less, and keep the resume to one page.

Maybe the most disheartening advice I heard in reporting on age discrimination came from Chere Estrin, a 71-year-old woman who runs a paralegal recruiting firm in California.

Estrin said a lot of discrimination against older people comes down to looks and attitude. She recruits workers for big AmLaw 200 firms. “I’m dealing with an elite crowd,” she said in an interview. “If you think looks don’t matter, you’re kidding yourself.”

Older workers say they can’t get a job because of their age, but that’s not the issue, she said: “People always tell me it’s age discrimination, if I dig into how they’re interviewing, presenting themselves and what they say, It’s not age discrimination,” she said. “If you show up looking like your grandma, yeah that may have an effect.”

Older workers also slip up in the way they talk at work, she said. Saying things like, “back in the day” or always talking about their “physical ailments” also remind people that you’re older, she said. “It’s more than a wrinkle here, a wrinkle there.”

In a Zoom interview, Estrin looked great: Her trademark oversized red glasses frames popped and her skin looked dewy. In a blog post on her website she recently detailed her experience getting Botox and other work done to her face to feel better about herself.

She used her personal experience to offer some job advice, writing that attractive people make more money and are more successful. The headline of her piece, “Are You Pretty Enough for Your Job” struck a nerve.

“The implication there is something wrong-looking about an aging face. That your hard-earned experience isn’t enough…,” wrote one person in the comments.

Others noted that if the #MeToo era taught us anything it’s that women, particularly women of color, already face all kinds of double-standards and tricky situations when it comes to “looking pretty” for work.

Others were glad Estrin had gone public.

“Well everyone, I am a WBW (working Black woman), and you have no idea what I’ve gone through to be presentable in the work place!” one commenter wrote. “I’m speaking mainly about my ‘never gonna be blonde or straight’ hair. Do I like having to jump through all these hoops? No. Is it necessary in real life? Yes. “

Estrin told me she’s glad she got people talking. “I would rather it cause conversation and talk it through.”

Her argument certainly sounds convincing, and no one would argue that it doesn’t matter if you look presentable at work or in a job interview.

But then, consider what kinds of people get leeway on their appearance. Money and power go a long way in making wrinkles more palatable. So does gender, of course: There’s a reason Mark Zuckerberg can get away with T-shirts and hoodies, while Sheryl Sandberg steps out in five-inch heels and well-tailored dresses.

I don’t think Warren Buffet worries about looking like someone’s grandpa when he takes meetings with investors.

Older workers looking for a job often face a chicken-egg type problem. Are employers hesitant to hire them because they’re old or because their years of experience makes them “expensive”? (Younger workers are cheaper to hire.) And really what’s the difference?

“I don’t know if it’s my age, or if it’s more my level of experience,” said Sara Rutledge, a 45-year-old economist who lives in the Chicago area, who’s struggled to find work that would pay her as much as she was earning before last full-time job was eliminated in 2018. “Once you have a couple decades behind you no one wants to hire you as an analyst.”

Like many older workers, Rutledge is striking out on her own doing consulting work. “I just kind of carved out a niche for myself,” she said. That’s one solution.

What are some others? I know many Worksheet readers are recruiters, too. Would love your thoughts on hiring older workers. You can find me on twitter @EmilyRPeck, or shoot me an email (don’t worry I ditched my hotmail address a long time ago).

Emily Peck

Visit Fortune’SmarterWorking Hub. And read more here:

1 quote, 1 story, 1 number

  • “In its sudden rearrangement of daily life, the pandemic might have prompted many people to entertain a wonderfully un-American new possibility — that our society is entirely too obsessed with work, that employment is not the only avenue through which to derive meaning in life and that sometimes no job is better than a bad job.”—Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times.
  • It took me several tries to read this, because like many of you (probably) I have a paying attention problem and really needed to read this piece on retraining my brain in The Guardian.
  • 28% of workers leave a new job within the first 90 days, from data cited in this must-read Time article on on-boarding new hires.

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