The Big Tent

Ageism Cuts Both Ways

Younger People May Be More Complicated -- and Smarter -- Than You Think

By Published on . 16

I believe in giving credit where it's due, which is why Scott Donaton, the venerable publisher of Advertising Age, deserves a ticker-tape parade up and down Third Avenue.

Jonathon Feit Jonathon Feit
Now, I'm no suck-up to the power teat, but his recent blog post, "Quit Whining About 23-Year-Old Media Planners," hit a major issue so squarely on the head that it actually caused me to bump my regularly scheduled post for this week to engage a subject I'd been saving: age discrimination.

The worst part about age discrimination is not its incidence -- of all the prejudicial criteria (race, gender, disability, national origin, creed, etc.), age probably is the most logical. After all, there is often some correlation between age and experience, or wisdom, or -- in the absence of either -- at least a lack of naiveté.

But how many times do we young people have to prove that we're at least as capable of being wondrous as our geriatric counterparts?

Consider the most important media and technology ventures of the 21st century thus far: Google. MySpace. Facebook. YouTube. Um ... none of these groundbreakers had a founder over 30 years old.

So much for gray hair.

It gets better (or worse, depending on your outlook): Facebook has been bid at over a billion dollars (with a B), and its founder is a 23-year-old Harvard dropout. (Apparently the ticket to success in technology is actually dropping out of Harvard. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg -- not a bad duo to follow.) While Zuckerberg may be a bit big for his own britches, shouldn't his success underscore that age has nothing to do with innovation and technical savvy?

Which strikes me as odd, considering that the fecundity of one's CV is still a factor investors and marketers alike take into account. You'd think they would know better, considering the exorbitant fees each collects from clients to gauge market timing and consumer sentiment. Yet Donaton rightly implies that both are out of touch with 21st century reality. The proof is in the payout, after all, as advertisers and acquiring corporations waste enormous shareholder premiums to acquire bandwagons that have left their stations.

Why, I wonder, do investors and marketers constantly forget that getting in on the "ground floor" is a much higher return strategy than waiting-and-seeing?

Consider Nike, which reaches out to budding athletes while they're still in high school, having recognized that all it takes is the inculcated loyalty of a couple of tomorrow's Next Big Things to justify every marketing dollar and minute.

But ageism, of course, is not limited to young people. Hollywood stars have long complained that their appeal seems to come with an expiration date, and fellow Big Tent blogger Carol Watson recently lamented to me that the publishing industry increasingly discriminates against professionals as their careers mature.

Indeed, much ado was made of magazine industry darling Atoosa Rubenstein's youthful insights when she was tapped by Cathie Black to found CosmoGirl magazine at 26 years old. But at 33 years old, the then-editor of Seventeen magazine found herself a commodity no longer essential to the Hearst Corporation.

No anecdote on the perils of ageism is more poignant than the fateful day in 2003 when I had an "audience" with the Wall Street Journal's then-publisher, Karen Elliot House. Having just created a first-draft prototype of my baby, Citizen Culture magazine, my business partners and I saw that meeting as our coup d'etat, an unlikely accomplishment for any publishers -- let alone a trio of entrepreneurs yet to produce a printed page.

As we entered her brilliant office atop the Dow Jones building, Ms. House looked at us and asked, "You people read?"

Not only do we, said I, but I'm a subscriber to the Journal. To say we were stunned cannot suffice.

I got to wondering about the perpetual circulation races among newspapers, and how much more powerful the Journal could be if it realized that young people aren't idiots.

Why target merely the established when you can reach the aspiring, the hungry fast-risers who pounce on opportunities to get ahead? The language might need some tweaking -- it's true that we don't want to be bored, and we want to excel -- but the juice will prove worth the squeeze as the dollars speed their flow.
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