Recently I applied for a freelance editing job that seemed tailor-made for me. After a couple of positive exchanges, I learned that the company had “decided to head in a new direction.” I visited the organization’s website a final time, noted the millennials populating it, and decided the direction they referred to was toward younger people. Maybe they simply found a better editor for the job, but I (sulkily) decided it was more likely due to ageism.
I’ll never know, but as I enter my sixties I have started wondering whether ageism affects freelance editors. Recently I asked colleagues age 55 and over to weigh in on the subject. I found that (a) I had hit a nerve, and (b) we older freelance editors have strong and differing opinions. Their responses and my research have convinced me that freelance editors face ageism just like any other professional, but as freelancers, our flexibility—in how we stay current and present ourselves—can help us avoid it.
First, let’s take a hard look at our aging selves: Are we slowing down? Do real issues related to age make us less able to perform editing tasks? Carol Saller, longtime contributing editor to The Chicago Manual of Style and author of The Subversive Copy Editor, blogged frankly on the subject for CMOS Shop Talk and received some furious responses. “That post got me in a lot of trouble! I’ve wished many times I could rewrite it,” said Saller.
“People are sensitive when they think you’re attacking them with prejudice. But no one can deny that older editors are more likely to have received their training longer ago than younger editors. My point was for us to question whether our skills are up to date.”
Freelance writing guru Carol Tice would agree with Saller. Tice suggests that while older writers may assume it’s ageism if they fail to get a freelance gig, more likely it’s what she calls “skill-ism”—assumptions about outdated tech skills. She argues that when older freelancers stay current with technology, combined with their decades of experience, they “have a strong offer.”
Yet even when boomer editors maintain their tech chops, they may be dismissed by some prospective clients who perceive any older freelancer as a tech dinosaur. “What really makes me angry is the assumption that since I’m a septuagenarian, I’m probably technically inept,” said Elliot Linzer. He built his first computer in 1958, when he was in junior high school, then helped write technical manuals for VAX computers in the 1980s. It’s safe to say that Linzer remains unfazed by new technologies.
Chris Morton also stays abreast of tech developments, nimbly navigating freelance editing assignments requiring him to work with new software platforms. It’s rare for him to encounter ageism, though Morton does suspect it was a factor last year when he was passed over for a full-time job following an in-person “cursory, millennial tag-team interview.”
Tech-savvy boomers fighting the assumption that older editors don’t “get” technology aren’t helped by the fact that some of our cohort fit the stereotype. “A lot of freelance editors are still working with near-obsolete apps and are unwilling to or incapable of updating and switching, which is very off-putting to clients,” freelancer Sheila Buff—a boomer herself—observed. “I’ve learned how to work efficiently in Google Docs because so many of my younger clients now use it, but I fear many of my colleagues are falling behind.”
Beth Lasser, a Gen X freelance editor, has noticed that some older colleagues resist adapting as tech evolves.
“They can seem unprepared to operate in the current environment, technologically speaking. Such people may view what I have to say as ageist, but I view them as inflexible and unwilling to adapt,” she said.
Clearly, we older freelancers must prioritize staying current on technology or risk not landing gigs. Tice further suggests aiming at our demographic and avoiding headshots that “look like they were taken 20 years ago in Montgomery Ward.”
Freelancer Andrew Huston agrees that boomers marketing to boomers makes sense. “I’ve found that writers gravitate toward editors in their own age—and therefore experience—group,” he said. “I never hide the year I graduated from college or my employment years, and people can easily do the math. I am quite happy if that limits my inquiries to the 74.1 million baby boomers. That’s more than a big enough pool for me!”
The reality is that freelance editors often pursue jobs managed by people younger than themselves; many of them see their experience trumping age when it comes to being hired. “I am 68, and I do not hide dates on my résumé. In my ‘about’ descriptions, I always refer to my 33-plus years of experience,” said Fran Fahey. “I have never experienced ageism in my job . . . and my clients’ ages run the gamut, from those who are still working on their master’s theses to fellow boomers who are writing their memoirs.”
Maggi Kirkbride has worked for more than 50 years, and she also dismisses age as an issue in snagging freelance gigs. “It’s about Fit and Fit,” she said. “Fit One: there must be a skills match. Fit Two: the person with the right skills match must fit in with the people already working there and/or the image the hiring person has in mind. With age can come experience—that ‘wisdom thing’—and often a person’s best work.”
Other freelance boomers are equally sure that strategically trimming their résumé to downplay their age helps them secure new jobs, whatever the hiring demographic. Like many websites related to job hunting, Jobscan recommends against listing experience more than 10 to 15 years old—and freelance editor Barbara Curielle thinks that’s sound advice. “I stopped listing my graduation dates on my résumé,” she said. “Later, I even stopped listing the dates when I worked in-house, although I still list the jobs.”
However we boomers market ourselves, there’s no denying that most of us emerged on the editing scene decades ago, just as there’s no denying the mental manifestations of aging. A few of us may be en route to “superaging,” but most of us will experience some degree of cognitive decline with age. The good news: we can work around these challenges and retain our professional value. (Remember: we have wisdom on our side.)
Saller has some ideas that go back to the basics for keeping your figurative editing pencil sharp: she suggests editors test themselves on grammar, usage, and style through resources like CMOS Online; read relevant blogs; and participate in online editors’ groups. (ACES and the Editorial Freelancers Association offer resources to help editors develop, maintain, and grow their skills.) If any age limitations make aspects of editing difficult, Saller advises, focus on others. Fortunately, editing offers an array of possibilities. Perhaps the unwavering focus required by proofreading and copyediting is becoming more challenging, but you’re as sharp as ever in your editorial judgment and ability to evaluate text; in that case, you might consider pivoting to developmental editing.
Another point she makes is that quality varies among editors regardless of age, and we need to take a hard look at ourselves throughout our careers. “Anyone—young or old—can be a bad editor, with pockets of ignorance, poor training, or close-mindedness,” said Saller. “We should all self-examine now and then with a view to our editing future.”
My grudge against the start-up that failed to hire me aside, I clearly have some work to do. Perhaps I’ll start by updating my LinkedIn profile. I work with indie writers who don’t flock to that social media platform, but I also edit for institutions who are all over it. Come to think of it, I haven’t seriously updated my website or tweaked my résumé in years—and both are aging alongside me. Hey, boomer! I tell myself. Time to get to work, to get work.
While ageism exists, some freelance editors don’t see it as their problem. For boomers who are concerned—and there are plenty of us—these steps will help you snag those freelance gigs. Boom!
Hey, Boomer! Still Snagging Gigs? was originally published in Tracking Changes (Summer 2020 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.