In 1994 a handsome woman appeared on television news in the Boston area: poised, energetic, well-groomed, with healthy body language—the kind of midlife woman who looks competent whether she’s selling Tupperware or bonds or simply walking across a street. She said she was forty-five. In feminist eras like our own when ages over forty can be broadly represented as “wonderful,” she was instantly recognizable as one of the wonderful midlife women. There are millions. On television, Patricia was articulate even though her self-confidence had been badly shaken. She was hired by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in a sting to test whether a woman her age could get a job in retailing at $6.00 an hour in competition with a younger woman. She and Becky, aged twenty-two, composed one set of four all-white teams matched for education, personal qualities, and (limited) work experience. It was a clear-cut test of the firms’ ageist hiring practices. By the end, Patricia had been told there were no jobs or turned down by every retailer. Some didn’t even take her résumé. The twenty-two-year-olds had frequently been offered full-time permanent jobs with benefits and ladders. The forty-five-year-olds had been offered a few jobs, but they were the new service jobs: seasonal and without benefits.
The midlife woman told me later that she was shocked and humiliated, and had become much more anxious about beginning her own real job search. I expect readers share her shock—
but perhaps we are not surprised. Age discrimination at midlife is almost a silent given in America. Yet it affects more groups and classes than anyone has imagined. Middle-ageism in general threatens to reduce the power and earnings of the entire workforce, viciously curtail the American Dream, and embitter our image of the life course. It is an urgent issue.