Erasing the age lines from a r

There's a new challenge facing job seekers: What to do when you look great in person but old on paper.

Published July 1, 2008 8:20PM (EDT)

I'm not proud to admit this, but I have listened way too closely to the lyrics of Amy Winehouse's song "Fuck Me Pumps." (It was at a dance class! I had no choice!) The CliffsNotes summary: It's about skanky girls in bars. I'll also admit that as I stretched my hamstrings and Ms. Winehouse sang the same repetitive melody over and over and over again, I could understand where she was coming from. I mean, who doesn't feel a certain hostility toward people who wear tube tops in public? (Presumably Winehouse -- though I suppose people in glass houses can still write songs.) But then I heard a line that actually seemed offensive. No, it wasn't the reference to caning or the line "Like the news every day you get pressed." It was the part when she tells the supposed skank: "Don't get mad at me/ Cuz you're pushing thirty/ And your old tricks no longer work." Pushing 30? That's supposed to be old?

I recognize there's a lot more one could find offensive in a song titled "Fuck Me Pumps" than a bit of ageism, but for some reason, that bit bothered me. And then I stumbled across this article from the Wall Street Journal about a more professional reaction to age discrimination: learning how to "eliminate the age lines" from your résumé.

The piece focuses mainly on the story of Lisa Johnson Mandell, a 49-year-old woman with over 20 years' experience as an entertainment broadcaster and film reviewer, who found her career "kind of sputtering" when she started seeing jobs she applied for going to much younger peers. Her husband had a harsh assessment of what was happening: "People are rejecting you out of hand because you are too old." He conceded to the Journal that his advice came from his own biases (he's president of a voice-over agency). "I unfortunately believe that I am of the same mind-set that most other people are -- that younger is better," he's quoted as saying.

It's unclear how much of this résumé ageism is based on a distaste for wrinkles, and how much is about having a modern image and a workplace filled with people who "keep pace with the times," as the Journal puts it. (I'd offer another hypothesis: Younger people tend to be cheaper.) Nor is this ageism exclusive to women -- though judging from the slew of books on the market about how to make yourself seem younger, they're certainly more worried about it.

After her husband told her that her résumé needed to eliminate a few years, Mandell made some simple changes: She dropped the 1980 date of her summa cum laude college graduation and got rid of some early jobs. (According to an executive career consultant interviewed for the piece, such omissions are ethical -- and often recommended.) Then Mandell launched a video-blog site (a move that makes sense when you consider that she's in entertainment) and asked a young friend to come over and help her pick out some outfits to wear for a résumé/Web site photo shoot. The result was a set of photos she refers to jokingly as her "mother/daughter" looks -- with the mom in a black turtleneck and blazer and the daughter in a studded T-shirt and jeans. She included the photos -- different shots for different jobs, none airbrushed -- in her updated résumé.

The result? Within a week, she was being approached for jobs and has since signed on to two projects, which she estimates will bring in an income over six figures. She also sent her new résumé to four companies that hadn't responded to the previous version -- and this time, they called her back. As she told the Journal, "It was with such pleasure that I told them, 'Thanks for the call, but I'm really tied up right now.'"

I think it makes sense to tailor your résumé to the job and industry for which you're applying, but on a larger scale, I find this upsetting. There may be times when a company has justified reasons for wanting a younger workforce (see above), but that also seems to be a further extension of our culture's obsession with youth. As Mandell herself put it, "Who ever dreamed that '20-plus years of experience' would be a liability? ... These are strange times."

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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