We often dismiss ageism as a topic for older women. The reality is that women in college are internalizing a fear of ageism in the workplace prior to becoming employed. Many of us can attest that we have noticed female students making breakthroughs as it has become more common to openly discuss our professional development with one another. However, there is still a lingering fear of being deemed unemployable at the forefront of a young woman’s psyche; a collective notion that as women we must enter the workforce as quickly as possible to evade a label of incompetence by age 50. As the daughter of a newly divorced single mother, I’ve witnessed the gender-based ageism she faces in starting a new path as a middle-aged woman. But beyond this, I’ve witnessed the subconscious way that young girls are manifesting that reality for themselves decades prior.
I’ve thought a lot about the idea of getting older this year. Although I sometimes still fantasize about what it might feel like to age, the word aging has gradually become synonymous with the concept of job insecurity in my mind. While I’m only 19, I’m nearing the optimal era of a woman's life; the time in which ambition is deemed acceptable and the race begins to augment every aspect of one’s life. Jia Tolentino, author of the bestselling book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, breaks down the idea of self-optimization and the ideal woman in the book’s third essay, “Always be Optimizing.” She underscores the deceiving reality of the lifestyle industry’s mission to support the overworked, fragile, yet perfect woman by encouraging her to buy athleisure clothing that pushes her to further optimize her time working and achieving a desired external appearance that emanates youth. The more extreme a woman’s efforts are to exist as a flawless version of herself, the more extreme the expectations of the institution become. In this way, a woman’s success is dependent on her youth and how long she can maintain a perception of it.
A woman’s fear of impending societal invisibility is not irrational. In 2017, the National Bureau of Economic Research investigated the prevalence of gender-based age discrimination in hiring by conducting an experiment in which 40,000 resumés were sent to employers. The researchers found that older women received significantly fewer callbacks for jobs than older men. This reality compels women to work feverishly within an ageist system until they reach the expiration date of their future employability. By this point, there’s a hope that a woman has hustled enough during her optimal years that she can sustain a family or conversely be dependent on a male partner for whom aging is not a grave obstacle.
In anticipating this crisis, my definition of what it means to invest in the future has become extremely convoluted. I view the 30 under 30 women as the caliber for success. I study how it is that a woman can achieve so much in so little time. I often neglect to revel in the true beauty of aging, that as a woman becomes less desirable and optimal, she no longer has to fulfill society’s unrealistic expectations of the ideal woman. Moreover, when society turns a blind eye to the pursuits of the middle-aged woman, when she is no longer the subject of the male gaze, is the point at which she is truly liberated to cultivate success on her own terms.
Feature image courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League.