Ageism and Enablers

Hollywood is brutal to older actresses.

Leading ladies are almost always in their twenties, even when the onscreen romantic interest of a sixty year old man (Maggie Gyllenhaal, as an example, was purportedly turned down as “too old” for a role that would have her play the love interest of a 55 year old. Maggie is 37). So as signs of aging appear, many actresses start getting bit parts, often as the mothers (or grandmothers) of the leads (in the {nsfw} famous Comedy Central bit, they point out how Sally Field was Tom Hanks love interest in Punchline, but became his mother by Forest Gump). Some go off the deep end trying to turn back the clock of time, becoming a cartoonish caricature of youth.

And occasionally these now ostracized women get together and point out this issue and complain about the lack of work.

But they seldom complain about it when they benefit. It isn’t the young actress — the next generation putting the last generation out of work — who’s railing about ageism in Hollywood. It isn’t the young actress saying “is it really believable that I’m 22 and somehow the head DA for a major city, even if it works for the inevitable workplace love interest?”

Of course they don’t. That’s human nature, and we all suffer the same selfish perspective lens: When the system benefits us, it gets a pass and we’ll find ways to justify it. When the same system is detrimental for us, we complain and rail our fists at the clouds.

First they came for the…

Which brings me to the software development industry and ageism. I’m in a position where I don’t really need to worry about this, but there was an earlier stage of my career where it was a considerable concern (though it took a back seat to the imminent peril of every development job moving overseas, which was the prevailing paranoia circa-2000): When would I make the transition to the fuzzy fields like middle management? Should I become a “project manager”? Should I get my MBA, or PhD, or become a teacher?

In many software development shops that Logan’s Run renewal chamber is running at capacity, and many pursue these transitions regardless of what they really want to do. Before their hand crystal starts blinking red.

I love software development and deep technical challenges too much. There was no way I was softening my approach to pander to other people’s issues or stereotypes. I reworked my path to evade other people’s nonsense to the greatest extent possible.

So I have the clarity of being on the outside looking in. And it’s fascinating because you have the 30- and 40-something developers complaining about rampant ageism. Complaining about being turned down for prospective jobs because they fall above the mean age (which, to be fair, probably isn’t really the issue much of the time and instead is an excuse. But it does happen), left out often through the ruse of workplace “culture”: Do they look nerf gun-ish enough? Or they complain about excessive hours that prevent having a life, or policies and expectations that are incompatible with having a family or outside interests. About the efforts to try to act young.

On the other side you have the 26-year old developers parroting the noise that older developers are somehow stuck in their ways (which is one of those things where people see what they expect or want to see, in the glorious tunnel vision of bigotry. I know older developers still stuck to Borland Delphi because they used it 20 years ago. I know young developers glued to Ruby, trying desperately to make it fit for problems where it’s grossly inappropriate. It just turns out that a lot of people don’t like change, and they’ll avoid it whenever they can, whether 25, 35, or 55. It takes root quickly). Those same young developers will tell you that families are a big distraction and that you need the dedication of 80 hour workweeks, accounting for the 60 hours spent browsing social media sites. That health issues and family coverage costs are just a big deadweight on the corporate health plan.

You can see this exact set of discussions happen regularly on sites like Hacker News. Where people see the world exactly how it benefits them right now. And if you denigrate older developers, or people in situations other than yours…well, less competition, right?

Which always leaves me marveling. Do these 25 year old developers realize that before they know it they’ll be 35 year old developers? And in an instant more they’ll be 45 year old developers? Or they’ll grow a family, or gain some hobbies or outside interests? That the same sharp-tongued patter that they serve right now will haunt them later in life? I mean, unless they have an exit strategy young, or live under the delusion that their side project has a high probability of hitting it mega big, they’re really sabotaging their own future self, or at a minimum allowing other people to sabotage it.

It’s kind of remarkable, really. Such thoroughly self-destructive noise. But if it’s somewhere off in the future…eh. Deal with it then.