Diverse Voices: It’s Time to Value Older Workers for Experience

Sep 16, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The biggest secret most people in Hollywood try to hide is not how much money they make, or who’s sleeping with whom — it’s how old they are.
Advertisers and network executives who value that 18-to-49 demographic have made working in the entertainment industry a Peter Pan fantasy that most don’t question, until or unless their own paychecks are affected.
What is the age of diminishing opportunity?
Actors say it’s 40 for females, and 50 to 55 for men. As the Screen Actors Guild 2004 Casting Data Report — the latest figures available — puts it, “Previous casting trends prevail, with a majority of roles going to actors under the age of 40.”
Writers say they’re pretty safe until 50. But Writers Guild of America stats show fewer than 20 percent of working TV writers are 51 years old or older.
Directors, well, they don’t keep score and the Directors Guild of America declined to comment on the issue.
“There seems to be more latitude for older line producers and directors because TV production is so much about large amounts of money spent quickly,” says Perry Lang, 48, a writer-director who got his start in the business as an actor.
“If a single day goes south, it will cost a fortune, so the networks and studios want people with a track record who can deliver a show. In that regard, your experience will protect you,” he said.
Lang pointed out that many television shows are fixated on 20-somethings, with 30-somethings playing parents to 20-somethings who are playing teenagers.
“The idea that anyone over 40 can’t understand the life of a teen or a 20-year-old is ridiculous,” says Lang, who has directed youth-oriented shows including “Dawson’s Creek,” “One Tree Hill” and “Everwood.” “But networks hire these 20-something writers who sometimes write flashy collections of pop moments that aren’t always a good narrative.
“When they don’t have the life experience themselves and they’re up against a deadline, they write about what they’ve seen in TV, movies and video games, rather than what they’ve lived,” he added. “Of course, there are many exceptions to that rule.”
Whatever generation we belong to, we all have to deal with the reality that, in order for the next generation to learn and achieve, we must at some point step aside and let others move forward.
The issue of ageism comes in when we push people out the door, or deny them opportunities, solely because we think younger is better.
The fact is, everyone grows older, and today’s Gen XYZers are going to have to grapple with losing their earning power one day, too.
While Baby Boomers are pushing to make 50 the new 30, it’s unlikely that ageism is going to fade away any time soon. So what’s an aging actor, writer or crew member to do?
Those who are afraid of being shut out of the business should take a page from the tactics of the AARP, one of the most powerful lobbies in the country: Hire younger people to represent you, make allies of those who respect your experience, find strength in numbers and stay abreast of youthful trends both large and small.
Growing into who we want to be isn’t easy, but it’s up to us to create the lives we want, says Margaret Nagle, creator and executive producer of Lifetime’s “Side Order of Life,” who also started her career as an actress.
“As long as women are still prized for their beauty, ageism will affect women more than men,” says Nagle, who is in her 40s. “But when women decide it’s not an issue, it won’t be.
“My grandmother taught until she was in her 80s, and my dad worked until the week before he died at 78, so I’ve never seen anyone retire,” she added. “I want to break these taboos. I plan to work as long as I can.”
Nagle shares what most working actresses won’t say.
“Your prime time as an actress is in your 20s, and I cut off the first half of mine by becoming a mom, twice,” Nagle says. “Agents don’t want to represent you, your body’s recovering and your mind’s on your family. The first thing agents asked was, ‘Are you going to have more children?’ I knew two was it, so I said no, but that was a hell of a thing to ask.”
How we set the boundaries of opportunity says more about who we are as human beings than any job we will ever hold. Perhaps growing older forces us to realize that every decision we make affects the future we’re creating for ourselves.
If we’re smart, we’ll all work harder to combat the issue of ageism. Otherwise, that dirty little secret — that men don’t ask about and women won’t tell — could come back to bite us sooner than we know.
Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who writes a syndicated column for Gannett News Service.


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