Toward agelessism: reflections on turning 50 in advertising
Earlier this month I turned 50. It’s a strange place to be, because in many ways I feel no different from when I was 25 or 30. After literally decades of therapy I suppose I am more self-aware, although one of the important things I have learned is that just because you know yourself better doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to do anything about it.
In advertising, however, 50 is noteworthy if only because there aren’t many of us around. Ageism is a hot topic in our industry. This latest birthday has inspired me to reflect on the value of experience and a state of being that for my purposes here I’ll call “agelessism.”
Here is what I think about experience, based on nearly 20 years working on many different kinds of projects, with many different kinds of people, as someone who has both managed and been managed by others.
Experience has no intrinsic value
I want to say that my longevity makes me a more effective practitioner and a more desirable employee, but I don’t really believe that. Rather, I think all of us, no matter our ages, face the challenge of keeping up with changes in technology, media, culture, and the arts—and the challenge of keeping our skills sharp. As long as we’re able to meet those challenges, we’ll be valued at 30, 40, 50 and beyond.
I don’t believe this is necessarily more daunting for older people. Cultural literacy, for example, isn’t like skin elasticity or hair. It’s not something you’re hardwired to lose over time. You do have to maintain a sense of curiosity, however. You have to work on keeping an open mind. You have to be willing to try—and take pleasure in—new things and to embrace the work of people who don’t look, talk or carry themselves like you.
Nor is the pressure to stay literate limited to older people. I have heard Gen Z-ers talk about the stress they feel trying to keep up with the latest shows. I know millennials who are ignorant of films that supposedly defined their generation. New trends appear, disappear, are recycled and remixed so fast that everyone starts at a disadvantage. This is something that requires effort, no matter who you are.
Fortunately, if you are 40-plus, you have a powerful tool at your disposal to make that effort easier. If you are an old and you want to know what’s going on, you don’t have to try to “how-do-you-do-fellow-kids” your way into a teen’s good graces. You merely have to open Twitter, TikTok or Instagram. The answers to all the mysteries of what’s trending and why are right there in your pocket, if you’re willing to take the time to look and listen. (And follow the right people.)
I think agelessism, brought about by the leveling effects of technology and media, is a beautiful thing, although it does raise some awkward questions. What does it mean to “act your age” online? Should I be proud or embarrassed when I reference a meme or some B-list celebrity feud playing out on Instagram and my teenage daughters have no idea what I’m talking about? (I don’t know the answer to this, honestly. I often feel a mix of both.)
The more experienced have no special claim, either, on the soft skills and elements of craft that we all need to master to be good at our jobs. I’ve known Gen Xers and Boomers who take feedback poorly and are quick to argue and defend, as well as millennials who take notes openly and graciously. I’ve known older writers whose work is rife with the bad habits they’ve probably been practicing since they started. Some of the best presenters I’ve ever seen—charming, confident, persuasive speakers—were in their 20s.
Where you work matters, as well. I’m lucky to have come of age in this business at a place founded on the presumption that stasis is death. R/GA prides itself on its nontraditional approach, reinventing itself every few years in response to macro shifts in technology and consumer behavior. This institutional embrace of change, and prizing of adaptability, creates an environment that demands I, and everyone I work with, keep up.
It’s also an environment in which we all absorb a lot just by being present and participating. If I read nothing more than the #kulture channel in the R/GA Slack, I’d still be better informed than most. Every day a diverse group of (largely) twentysomethings gather there to dissect the day’s events, forming a kind of homegrown intelligence engine. As a channel member I consider it my responsibility to share as much of value as I take away.
I’m not saying ageism doesn’t exist. Yes, there are cases in which people are slighted for no reason other than their age. And getting older often brings with it particular considerations that make managing work responsibilities more difficult—raising children, caring for a sick parent.
I’m saying that all of us, intern to executive, have a mandate to show up every day and show what we’ve got. And given the speed at which technology and culture move, we all have daily—hourly—homework assignments.
In that sense, none of us ever leaves school.