StartUp @ 45+

I responded to an ad for a Traffic Manager position at an ad agency in San Francisco a few years ago. Downtown, in one of those glass monoliths. Eighteenth floor. Made me nauseous being up there. I couldn't help consider the notion of an earthquake as I sat in the lobby waiting for my interview to begin, staring out the floor to ceiling windows at the city far below me.

An older gentleman, at least 20 years my senior, sat in the lobby with me. Probably in his mid-50s, receding hairline with only a tuft left on top of his head, but the sides were still full and more salt than pepper. He wore a wedding ring, black slacks and a white shirt under his gray suit jacket which did not conceal his slightly protruding belly.

We'd probably been sitting there three minutes but to me it felt like twenty. I could have sworn the building was swaying. So sure I was having a vertigo reaction, at one point I asked the older guy next to me for a reality check.

“Excuse me. Hi.” I gave him my friendliest smile and tried not to come off like a lunatic. “Do you feel the building...moving?”

“Oh, yeah,” he replied. “These buildings are designed to sway in the wind. In earthquakes, too.” He gave me a shy smile, like he was sorry he brought them up. “They have upwards of a five foot arc depending on height, and design, of course. Doesn't sit well with some people. My son hates it. You one of the motion sensitive types?”

“You bet,” is all I could manage to avoid barfing.

He smiled. “Not me so much. I'm not the sensitive type. You here for the Traffic position?”

I nodded. “You?”

“Yup.” Then the pudgy older guy went on a diatribe describing his education and work history, as if I was the one interviewing him. A few minutes into his years at yet another firm in a compact list of famous ad agencies, a young, and I mean young, maybe 20 year old assistant/model called the guy in for his interview.

From my vantage point I watched them go into the all-glass conference room in the center of the open office maze. I saw him sit at the end of the long table only after the woman interviewing him sat. She was strikingly similar to the assistant/model, same tight build, silky auburn hair and milky skin of an early 20-something. She sat straight in her chair, but he seemed to wilt in his as the interview progressed, which seemed odd because his experience was substantial and in the exact areas required for the job. I'd been on the Creative and Art Direction side and knew nothing about running Traffic in a large agency setting. I'd applied for the position hoping for an entree into their creative department. Less than ten minutes later the hot interviewer was escorting the pudgy guy to the glass door. He gave me a basset hound nod as he passed to leave.

I was called in next, and felt twitchy with the fishbowl affect of their all glass conference room the entire time we were talking. I kept losing eye contact with the young Director of Digital Traffic, focusing instead on every passerby looking in at us, and even most that weren't. She went through my resume with perky interest, then asked to review my portfolio as if to back up my claims. I showed her several projects from my book which she perused carefully while questioning my involvement in the campaigns. I gave her detailed descriptions of a few of my recent freelance consulting gigs, hoping she'd get the hint and refer me to one of the impossible to reach CDs on staff.

“Are you aware you're dressed the epitome of chic?” she asked me, which seemed very personal but it was an interview, after all, so I went with it.

Sort of. I had no idea how to respond so I kinda laughed her off with a shrug.

“The black leather jacket with that maroon lace dress. Stunning. Really. Good choice. So, do you want the job, or what?”

And I would have said, 'No, not really. I'm hoping for a lead to your creative department,' but then she told me the salary.

“$90,000 to start. And if you come on board there's a $5,000 signing bonus.”

I was working my ass off for around $60,000 annually, getting the clients, hiring the teams per project, doing everything from the creative to the production and traffic to accounting and billing as a consultant. Close to a hundred grand seemed easy money working for someone else, performing a single job function. I told her I needed 24 hrs to think about it and I'd get back to her tomorrow.

“Well, I hope you join us,” she said as she walked me out. “I think you'd be a great asset to the team, and our agency.”

In my car on the drive across the Bay Bridge her words echoed in my head. Why, exactly, would I be a great asset to the production team? Unlike me, the older candidate I met in the lobby had the experience and education the agency's ad asked for, and he surely needed the job more than I did, with a wife and at least one kid. I told the young director I'd only trafficed my own projects, that I'd been on the creative side my entire career, but she didn't hear that. She was too busy checking out at my outfit. She was basing my fit into the agency on my looks, and my age.

Before you roll your eyes and tune out of 'another article on ageism,' for all of you over 50 out there, or if younger you're at least aware that you too will age, don't bother looking to get hired from a 20-something 'Director' who hasn't amassed the years of experience you now possess. Young and naive, your knowledge threatens her authority. You don't need to waste your valuable time in the playpen, also known as most startups today. Become your own CEO. Start your own gig with the skill sets you've cultivated all these years. Have an idea? Create your own company, even if it's consulting, or teaching on what you used to do full time. No ideas? Find someone who does and partner.

Simple? Nope. Hard. Very. But harder than getting a job from the pubescent workforce now dominating the job market? Probably not. And a hell of a lot more... invigorating than answering to some just out of college clueless 'Director,' young enough to be your kid.


Anonymous said...

Starting something on your own is great, if you have a cushion of cash to support it. If you're living hand to mouth at 45+, and are out of work, it just sucks, with no good options. Looking for work can be hugely time-consuming, so can starting something on your own. Either one seems like a gamble, to me, the latter seems like more of one.

Nonetheless, well written piece! This one hits close to home ...

J. Cafesin said...

It doesn't have to be either/or, at least at first. While you're looking for work, be working at night, the time in between interviews and sending out resumes and work on something that excites you while thinking on how to productize it.