My dream was happening: I was living in L.A. as a bachelor with my own pad, a brand new job and my first car. Things were going great — the life I’d been striving for since I was scrounging back in wintry New York was finally in my grasp. I went to celebrate my newfound success at a bar and soon found myself tipsily walking back to my apartment.
That’s when I received a phone call from my mom.
“Josh, I’m here.”
“What do you mean, you’re here? Where?”
Arriving at my front door, I found my mom in her car, loaded with everything she owned. She’d driven across the country to crash with me, since she had no place to go. I was 27 and felt like a pin had just popped the balloon called my future. My mom was broke, in her early 60s, and like today, barely spoke English. Originally from Seoul, she never acclimated to the local tongue, and speaks a mixed Korean-English pidgin that few can understand.
This wasn’t a burden I wanted to take on. Neither did the rest of my family — in fact, the majority of them thought I was stupid for helping her in the first place and urged me to “kick her to the curb.” I was pitted with the choice of either taking her in, or sending her to the streets.
I did the former.
It was arduous at first. Although my mom is very caring and good humored, she has a difficult personality and a tough time understanding boundaries — mine, or anyone else’s. Making matters worse, she isn’t great at making friends and is quite untrusting, having never gotten over the betrayal of my father divorcing her years ago. On top of that, after she moved in, my landlord wanted us out: Early on, he stipulated in my contract that any of my guests could only stay a maximum of one week — now, I had a senior camped in my living room. And so, it quickly became clear that we’d need to find a new place.
Since she couldn’t work, I was covering all of our expenses. I wanted to be selfish, but I couldn’t, and it was infuriating when friends and family would try to give me advice, especially since, quite frankly, they didn’t know what they were talking about. They never had to take care of an elderly person on their own, let alone one with mental health issues. (I’d later learn that my mom had possibly begun to develop dementia, although she refuses to get properly diagnosed or treated.) What made me angry most of all, though, was the feeling that I couldn’t afford to fail, because if I hit rock bottom, I’d be dragging her with me.
For a long time, I was mad at my mom and kept telling her to get a job. But as the months and years rolled by, I realized how big a part ageism was playing in her difficulty landing work. My mom tried looking for roles at first — as a homecare helper and beautician — but was consistently turned down. It was a stark contrast to when she was younger: As a kid, I remember jobs being thrown at her in nail salons and stores, back when she was in her 30s. Today, though, she seemingly has no prospects, despite having more than 25 years of experience as a beautician.
I’m not sure why I was surprised. Because once it dawned on me, I remember surveying the labyrinth of cubicles at my own office and recognizing that almost no one was over the age of 40. Many, if not the majority, were in their 20s like me or early 30s: The only people over 40 usually held senior management or executive positions, and they were few and far between.
More insidiously, in a world obsessed with targeting millennials and Gen Z, age seems to be a socially acceptable — if unspoken — reason to not hire someone. Because what does someone over 40 know about what “the kids” want? Economist Alicia Munnell highlighted these issues in an television interview with PBS’s NewsHour in 2013. “We actually did a survey a few years ago with HR types to see how they viewed older workers,” she explained. “They were skeptical of older workers — they worried about their ability to learn new things, about their physical stamina and how long they’re going to stay. When you look at the whole picture of their assessment of older workers, you really wouldn’t go out of your way to hire one.”
What’s especially weird about this is that, while old age is a form of “otherness,” it’s one we also all have the potential to share: Everyone, so long as they live long enough, will face getting older and the prejudices that come with it. Worse, it seems to keep getting closer: I have professional coder friends who haven’t hit 30 yet, but they’re already concerned about getting aged out of their field. In entertainment, an infamously youth-obsessed industry, I’ve rarely met anyone who still had a working career over the age of 50.
A trip to Thailand a few years ago also shaped my perception of ageism as a particularly Western problem. Dotted across that country lies a vast ex-pat community, primarily made up of men in their early 50s and beyond. I figured they moved there to date women half their age, but alongside that objective, many migrated because of economic reasons — since Western currencies go far out East — and the simple fact that back home, they were considered nobodies. “Here, I’m an emperor; in the U.S., I’m a nothin’,” an expat would complain. “Women wouldn’t even look at me, and jobs wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
Culturally, we may have a lot to learn from Asia. Eastern nations tend to extol their elderly populations, treating them with veneration and as great sources of wisdom. Families are expected to take care of their seniors, rather than dumping them in old folks’ homes, on the government tab, or estranged relatives. It’s woven into the very fabric of their culture to look after their own.
I remember the first time I was confronted with this cultural obligation when I was 17. I grew up in Hawaii, an American state uniquely ingrained with Asian culture. During my senior year of high school, I’d gotten into some trouble after almost buying an iPod that turned out to be stolen. My mom had to come speak to the principal, a tan-skinned, Okinawan fellow, with salt-and-pepper hair. My father had only divorced my mom a few years before, and she expressed her concern that she wasn’t going to be able to make it on her own. The principal looked me grimly in the eyes and said, “In our culture, Asian culture, the kids take care of the parents.”
Meanwhile, here in mainland America, we often treat anyone over the age of 50 like spoiled fruit. According to a report from the AARP, 64 percent of workers say they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, and 58 percent of adults believe age discrimination begins among workers in their 50s. Another report from the Bureau of Labor claimed that not getting hired is the most common type of age discrimination (just one in five workers in the U.S. is age 55 or older) followed by missing out on a promotion, and then being laid off or fired. For those who are laid off at 55 or older, it takes an average of at least a year to find work, if they land something — longer than any other age group.
Of course, HR and hiring managers do have real concerns when it comes to hiring older people. Not only are younger workers often willing to work longer hours for less money, they’ve been brought up in, and are generally more comfortable with, a tech-heavy world. Plus, as Munnell explained in that same NewsHour interview, “Older employees get more expensive on the health care front because of more ailments, and most studies show that people’s abilities peak around age 40, and sort of gently decline thereafter. So you have this mismatch of rising compensation and steady at best productivity, and it makes older people not look like such a good deal.”
Even being successful isn’t always a guaranteed defense. Take Floyd Norman, a legendary Disney animator who was hired by Walt Disney himself back in the 1960s. Despite now being in his early 80s, Norman is still spry and sharp-witted, yet he’s still painfully familiar with ageism.
“Unfortunately, it’s a sensitive subject nobody wants to touch, but ironically, it affects all of us,” says Norman. “I never gave it that much thought until it affected me, and I found myself out of the job when I made the mistake of turning 65. Honestly, I wasn’t even aware that I turned 65 — it was my forced retirement that made me aware of it. At first, it was challenging to find work — a lot of companies won’t hire old workers. Even sadder, there are people in their 50s who are worried about their jobs today. To me, late 40s to early 50s is the prime of life! That’s when you finally gain maturity, and you’re at your most productive. But some look at that as old. Age is perspective — I look at people in their 40s like they’re a kid.”
In Norman’s opinion, when companies ignore older workers, it’s not just these workers who lose out. “Back in the 1950s, Ward Kimball — a cartoonist, and one of Walt Disney’s legendary Nine Old Men — put together a unit, dividing it by veteran animators and new kids who were young and inexperienced. And it paid off: The work they produced had depth and fresh, innovative ideas,” says Norman. “That’s because both generations worked together. Companies these days should keep this type of balance in mind, because you get the best of the young and old when they learn from each other. I’m surprised more businesses don’t use that technique, but now it seems that they only want younger workers so they can get them cheaper. Corporations see that as very beneficial, but in the long run, they lose.”
Some companies, at least, are paying attention, and attempting to uphold age diversity in their hiring practices. Monster.com, in partnership with employee-review platform Kununu, keeps track of the businesses that treat their older employees well with a top ten list, which features the likes of Nike and H&M. And when AARP created an employer pledge program that encourages and promotes companies that commit to hiring and valuing older works, more than 460 companies signed up.
But still, there’s obviously a way to go.
As for myself, while at first I resisted the responsibility of taking care of my mom, I’ve grown to appreciate it. Nearly five years have passed, and looking after her has taught me a lot: How to budget, how to temper my selfishness and how to manage that ever-limited resource — time. It’s made me self-reliant and prepared me for marriage and children — in other words, it’s taught me to grow up. And with a new perspective on the realities of ageism, I’ve started making steps to prepare for the future — saving money for retirement and taking night classes to learn new monetizable skills, so that if I do ever age out of a job, I have backup plans.
Most importantly, though, it’s taught me to appreciate spending more time with my family. After all, none of us will be around forever.