Ageism Begins at 40

Career Development, Creative Talent, growth, job search, reflection, strategy

How soon do you want to be successful? How long do you think it’ll take?
In all my years working in this industry, there are some interesting data points that we’ve identified around creative professionals and how some build successful careers and most don’t. People in this space are bright, driven, and passionate, with advanced skill sets spanning across mediums and platforms; they care a great deal about finding career opportunities where they are staying in a state of flow, continuously learning, reaching greater heights, and earning what they deserve – instead of just working for a paycheck and hitting stagnation.
In the uber-competitive industry of design, strategy, and innovation, the ceiling can hit as early as 40 – and it’s expected to become ever more competitive in the coming years. For example, a 2017 study noted that China was producing twice as many design graduates as the United States, with a significant increase expected in the years to come.
This spike in interest in design extends beyond job seekers. My team and I have seen that employers are also realizing the value of investing in design, strategy, and innovation. The problem is that most of these employers are still in the nascent stages of understanding how to invest in and properly value design talent. This means the jobs being offered are often sub-par: unrealistic, misrepresented, and unsupportive of the skills many creatives have to offer. This only contributes to the current imbalance between the number of professionals entering this industry and the number of viable jobs. We find that most professionals have the same top companies on their wishlist and many can’t get in. With few truly viable design opportunities and tons of creative professionals entering the field on a national and global scale, it’s no wonder that this industry is becoming more and more competitive every year.
We are now in an era where the world is obsessed with NEW: new technology, new startups, new methods, new talent. Age doesn’t always predict ability but it’s an unfortunate fact that big corporations tend to prescribe to this notion that “new is always better” and be biased towards hot, young talent. This is why in the new world of work, the ceiling hits as low as 40 years old. Of all the trends popping up, this is one of the most alarming so naturally, my team and I dedicate inordinate amounts of time to understand the causes of this epidemic. One such cause is ageism – but probably not the kind you’re thinking of.
For most, the beginning of a career tends to move fastest and more often than not, this is because big corporations just need bodies to execute the busy work. Similar to entering a marathon, it’s easier to do well because there is no shortage of positions available and because the biggest qualifier of performance is staying power: working crazy hours, multitasking, and just powering through. Everyone gets in, everyone runs the race, everyone gets a medal.
There’s a definite degree of success in these initial stages and it may seem like traction is being made...but it’s soon followed by a spike in competition. This shift often becomes noticeable when trying to enter into higher level positions. At this point, it moves past a marathon or a general race; it’s like qualifying for the Olympics.
In any business, how many people do you think a corporation needs at a general staff level compared with a leadership and management level? At the staff level, you’re running a marathon: success is measured by getting your work done and just finishing the race. Getting to those senior positions for leadership and management however, is like qualifying for the Olympics. At the higher levels of any industry, the number of positions available are marginally fewer than those available at the execution level. Just think about how many people are eligible to run a marathon compared with how many are eligible to compete in the Olympics. There are far fewer available positions and the candidate criteria becomes far more specialized with compounded requirements and responsibilities.
On the flip side, your needs, preferences, goals, and specializations as a creative become increasingly more specific as you become more aware and advanced in your career. Skill, strategy, and expertise take precedence over staying power – and from that point on, it only gets more challenging. This is why it’s absolutely paramount that you have the right optics to navigate the industry so you’re moving strategically instead of being at the whim of whatever opportunity presents itself. Anyone can run a marathon but it takes an elite athlete to qualify for the Olympics and win the gold. If you’re ready to make that leap from running a marathon to competing in the Olympics, what do you do? What separates the average runner from an Olympic-caliber medalist? You need a steady, strategic training plan, a devoted team, and an Olympic-caliber coach who has the tools, knowledge, and experience to guide you to success.
There are many who think that this doesn’t apply to them. “I’m doing alright, I have a job”, they’ll rationalize. The danger in this is becoming too comfortable too early on, thereby being lulled into a false sense of security. Most people we meet often don’t initially see the need to cultivate this kind of awareness and it ends up affecting them far more deeply. They might have seen some warning signs earlier on, but they don’t understand the gravity till they’re in the thick of it. Succeeding at a job is the goal but you also need to be stepping back from time to time to see how this job is affecting your overall career trajectory. When we work with people on their careers, what we find is that there is always some kind of pattern that has been affecting them and holding them back from reaching their highest potential – and it’s often a pattern they themselves don’t even notice.
At a certain point, it’s simply not practical to use your own optics to try to understand where you’re stuck. Preventative measures need to be taken to ensure that you’re actively qualifying, evaluating, and growing within your current role. While your 20s are for exploration and laying the groundwork, your 30s are for building on that initial foundation. This is the optimal time to make those career-solidifying moves.
The challenge is to stay ahead of the curve and establish yourself as the creative asset you know you are. One of the first ways to do this is to get comfortable representing yourself and really understanding your strengths and areas for improvement.
Here are some tips and tools that can help promote self-discovery and self-awareness:
  • Reflect on what you’re doing. Take a few minutes every week to step back and objectively evaluate where you’re at. Are you reaching your professional goals? Are you fulfilled at work? Are you earning what you deserve while doing what you love?
  • Practice speaking about yourself. Look for events like my friend Tom Krieglestein’s, the SpeakEasy Bootcamp, that are designed to help you improve your public speaking skills. Sign up for this event and use the code SpeakEasyAY20 to get a 20% discount!
  • Find a supportive network. Connecting with like-minded individuals is a great way to gain additional insight and support into whatever you may be trying to do. Join the conversation in our Facebook group, The Secret to a Thriving Design Career. 
  • Request a strategy call today to see where you might be stuck! 

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Whatever stage you find yourself in, it’s never too early to start preparing for whatever the future may hold. You may just learn something new about yourself in the process! 

Tagged: Career Development, Creative Talent, growth, job search, reflection, strategy

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