Watching Nancy Pelosi duke it out with President Trump has been inspiring in a critical way that has nothing to do with politics: showing a younger generation that women “of a certain age” can hold—and remain in—positions of power.
She reminds me of my late mother-in-law. Both “California girls.” Stylish. Spry. Coiffed. Nancy, of course, is a powerhouse in the House. Lillion was a powerhouse in ours.
Where they differed: Pelosi makes no bones about the fact that she is 78. Not so my mother-in-law, who lied about her age all the way to the end. When she died a couple of years ago and we were writing her obituary, no one was sure what date to put down.
My father-in-law wasn’t much help. “It wasn’t something she wanted to discuss,” was all he had to say.
As Pelosi takes on President Trump and we hear about more women of a certain age assuming positions of power—such as Golden Globe Best Actress winner Glenn Close, 71, and Susan Zirinsky, now heading the CBS’s News Division at 67—I wondered if fewer women in their 50s, 60s and 70s will now feel the need to fudge their numbers. I also thought about why Lillion felt compelled to lie about her age in the first place.
One of 12 children and a girl, she wasn’t going to inherit the family’s North Dakota farm and so headed to the West Coast in the post-World War II boom-years. She was scrappy, and if she looked younger than her actual years, well, wasn’t that a plus? She did what it took to find a job and make her own California Dream.
Today, it’s great to see older women starting get the recognition they deserve. Perhaps it’s not surprising given that the U.S. Census reports rapid growth of the older population, the majority of whom are women.
Many continue to want to work. But, as with my mother-in-law, it’s not always easy. And, while’s it great to see such public examples of older women at the top of their fields, I’m not sure so much has really changed for the rest of us.
Consider the situation of longtime journalist and author Emily Nunn. Last summer, a tweet storm erupted when Nunn shared the response she got to an application for a job at a major newspaper:
“Hi Emily: Thanks for responding to the open positions … Unfortunately, we are looking for people who have a broader range of experience and a significant number of years at a major publication. Keep writing! Good luck with your career.”
Nunn introduced this to her followers: “I just got this letter RE a newspaper job I applied for. I worked for over a decade at the @NewYorker and 7 years at the Chicago Tribune, where I won the EIC’s award for best writer of the year for my wide ranging features. My book is on a large number of best of lists. I am 57.”
Her post generated 4,243 re-tweets and 20,363 likes, at last count. Of course, the chattering class on Twitter had some interesting things to say about her situation. They pointed out that older employees cost companies more.
“Age 57 doesn’t just mean you’re old, it also means you’re likely over- paid,” wrote one.
“It’s the perception that we can’t keep up with digital,” tweeted another, making the point, it’s “colossal BS, of course.”
They also teased out the irony of ageism in hiring, pointing out that older employees often make ideal employees
“We have the experience, wisdom & know-how plus most or all of our kids are grown and off doing there own things so there’s not absenteeism for tons of family issues.”
Would things have turned out differently had Ms. Nunn lied about her age? Did her resume get caught by an algorithm—like a fish in a trawler’s net—because it picked up certain buzzwords and automatically scooped up and screened an applicant “of a certain age?” Was what she received an AI-induced, auto-generated reply scripted by an intelligent machine?
Resume coaches advise “older” or “experienced” applicants to be mindful of online sand traps: Don’t include the year you graduated from college. Avoid catch phases like “seasoned executive.” Do you have 30 (or more) years of experience? That’s a problem.
What’s a seasoned applicant to do? Ignore years of accomplishments? Deny having been there and done that? Trim down experience as if it is excess weight?
For women especially—many of who need to stay in the workforce long beyond traditional retirement years to make up for wages lost during childbearing years, or to wayward husbands, or because of the pay gap—this is a serious question.
Indeed, many women over the traditional retirement age of 65 need to continue to work in order to avoid turning deep-seated “I’m going to be a bag lady eating dog food” fears into reality.
Of course, it’s not easy out there for men of a certain age, either. A recent investigation by ProPublica and the Urban Institute found that “more than half of older U.S. workers are pushed out of longtime jobs before they choose to retire.”
What’s more, the investigation found: “The percentage of recent retirees who said their retirement was forced or partially forced has risen steadily over two decades and reached 55 percent in 2014, the last year for which comparable figures are available.”
But research shows that in recent years women who came of age believing they could “have it all” have continued to discover yet another double standard. Add age on top of your gender and it rarely plays as well for a woman, partly because women are still judged on their physical appearance.
Given all this, was Lillion right?
TVLand’s comedy show Younger features a 40-something divorcee who “passes” for a 20-something in order to get back into the workforce and land a much-needed job. The show has a big following and recently was renewed for a sixth season.
But here’s the rub (and spoiler alert): The character’s ploy works only for a while and things get complicated when HR catches on.
The same happened to Lillion, as it turned out. For years, she’d kept up her lie with friends and family. But in the end—before we submitted her obit—my husband found an old driver’s license. Outed by documents, the truth was revealed.
She was 83.
If lying is no longer an option in our digital age, what’s the fix? Will attitudes shift as the demand by employers for more workers rises? Will we see more women like Pelosi, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others get to—and hang on to—their spots at the top?
I hope so. But until then, I’ll take Lillion’s route. If you want my age, you’ll have to read my obit.