I am not old. I will be seen as old.
I bracket this with an apology. This is the howl of someone already lucky-as-fuck with a good life.
I am one of the more highly privileged women you’ll meet. No, I’m not born into wealth. But I’m white, heterosexual and reasonably attractive in a conventional way. And I can dress to fool many that I’m more than just reasonably so. I’m fiercely intelligent and disgustingly well-educated. I earn enough to live in a major city, even if I don’t earn enough to live indulgently in a major city. I’m moderately charming, in that humor-filled self-deprecating way. Currently, I’m only hampered professionally and socially by a shyness that leaves me exhausted when forced to make conversation with strangers (this also includes people who make me coffee; but my needs win over), and low level generalized anxiety.
Secretly, I’m proud of things I’ve made. Secretly, I can tell you I’m excellent at my job. People like me. Want to work with me. My career is going well. But I’ve suddenly become scared.
See, a couple of months ago I reached my mid-30s. I’m recently back in an industry that is male dominated. The women in this industry are brilliant, because they have to be. But I’m meeting people a decade younger than me with what feels like more skills, and more relevant skills. I’m mid-level in life experience, and that is useful, and it feeds both my work and the quality of my work. But I’m relatively junior in terms of knowledge and time put in.
I’ve only turned mid-30s. I’ve got another 30 years to keep learning (unless I don’t, at which point career better fucking not be my concern). If people 10 years younger than me overtake as they gain the experience that is my only advantage over them, that’s OK. That’s an industry norm. For job, and life satisfaction, I just need to keep going forwards.
I’ve got time.
Except here’s the thing — I’m acutely aware that I don’t. Women start turning invisible around their 40s. Personally, and professionally. As a woman’s youth fades, so often does her credibility. Men gain experience, women just get older and possess less vitality. Just look at actors. (“But that’s different!” No, it’s not. The media we consume normalizes situations in reality. Manages expectations. Media highlights reality.) For every George Clooney, Brad Pitt; or, going older, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, there’s… There’s Helen Mirren. There are a few other exceptions, but they are exceptional. There’s a flood of men in fictional (and actual) relationships with women young enough to be their children. It is a rare film where a male over twenty-eight is partnered with a woman his age or older. Unless it’s to show contrast with a younger temptation; to explain it. Women the same age as men are viewed as if they are decades older. Reality doesn’t treat women any better.
What does this mean professionally? I know I’ve had an easier time networking because people find me attractive. They don’t have to want to sleep with me to be influenced by the fact they enjoy being in my company. I know I’m taken more seriously than if I were obese. (Isn’t that shit?) I know I’ve been hired because someone wanted to fuck me. (That hurt. On realizing that, my belief in my work plummeted. Fortunately the admiration of industry titans re-convinced me I’m actually damn good.) I know I’m taken more seriously than if I were a black woman. (Fuck this.) Essentially — I know that if I didn’t look how I do, even if my work were far better than it is, I would be unlikely to be this successful. I don’t think this has given me an advantage over my male peers. I think it’s helped level the playing field. And soon that leveler will be gone.
But the problem of aging is not one of just looks. It’s the ability to maintain a high-profile, a useful network — both required to be influential and to be kept appraised of new work, to ensure you might come to mind should an interesting opportunity arise (internally or externally). To not be dismissed as too old for a role, too old to be innovative.
Even if a woman puts in the time at work, in conferences, at social events it can risk backfiring. The guy in his late 40s hanging out at the bar with a much younger team? Unless he does something spectacularly creepy, he’s not blinked at as unusual. See a similarly aged woman do the same? Well, she better act like one of the lads, and even then — hasn’t she something better to do? Is she desperate? (Worse if she’s single.) It’s the age barrier equivalent of the work nights in the strip club. You are female, you should not be here. You are old, you are should not be here.
I mentioned before — there are brilliant women in this industry. Ones with the vigor and enthusiasm to be masters in their field. They’ve put in the time, done the work, and they are recognized. They are not nearly as celebrated as their male equivalents — but perhaps that’s partly because there are fewer of them (I’m being charitable here, but sexism then does not necessarily mean sexism now). There’s a smaller pool in which to find genius. But I am not one of these women. I didn’t start here in my twenties. I haven’t done the time. I don’t have the time.
I’m mid-30s, I’m mid-career, and I’m scared I’ve got four years before I’m working to not become sidelined as obsolete. And that fucking sucks. Because there’s so much to learn and I’m excited and I take joy in what I do and in learning to do more. I want to stay where I am syphoning in all the knowledge I can before going elsewhere and doing the same again. I want to commit to places and projects. I want to create beautiful and important things. But I worry that I can’t. Stay where I am, and it’ll soon be too late to move elsewhere. Go elsewhere and it only pushes that issue one move away. For a woman, I’ll be old — and that can be professionally fatal.
I won’t be old. But that’s how I’ll be seen. And that’s how I’ll be treated. I can’t stop myself aging. I can’t change society. (I’ll keep trying.) Is only the solution to work like a dog and hope it’s enough to compress 10 years of work into four? I might be too old for that.
This isn’t a moral fear, I get that. It’s a deeply personal one — and one I cannot articulate among my peers because of the degree of selfishness involved. I’m complaining about an advantage many don’t have, being removed from me. This problem could be ripped from me by ill health, or a crisis of almost any other kind. I have to have a certain degree of financial stability for this to even be a pressing issue. So many other segments of society are discriminated against in far worse ways that I feel to even talk about this risks obscuring genuinely life-destroying situations.
But it’s something that occasionally sends me slewing into a spiral of panic. It sets me up for failure. I can attempt to run enough side-projects to build a portfolio while working full time; I’ll fail. I cannot work hard enough to prove I’m good enough to compensate for the inevitable consequences of time. Trying, and failing, will knock my professional confidence, emotionally and physically exhaust me, and drain the joy from working in an industry that I want to progress in because I love what it creates.
I’m a woman in her mid-30s, and I think this might be my mid-life crisis. I guess I’ll go buy a motorbike. And then do some fucking work.