AGES AND STAGES (part 1): Hot New Generational Trend Defies Stereotypes

Have you noticed who is getting attention recently? It’s Boomer women and some even older Traditionalists. Let’s both rejoice and not overreact.

In the most recent elections, both Boomer and vocal, independent-minded Millennial women emerged victorious in notable numbers. We saw: 77-year-old Donna Shalala, with many years of high level experience in the education and nonprofit worlds just elected to Congress from Florida; 29-year-old Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (given the recognition of the acronym A.O.C.) defeating an old, powerful New York veteran of the Democratic power structure; Nancy Pelosi, 78, elected Speaker again, remaining a dominant force; and more. Women are feeling their power across the age and tenure spectrum, including Gen X women in the middle (moving up).

In the corporate world, it’s taken a long while. But the elevation of Susan Zirinsky (age 66) to President of CBS News, who Katie Couric (62) said should have gotten this top job 10 years ago, shows how “Me Too” finally has opened opportunities for talented, hardworking women, evoking cheers from Gayle King, proudly claiming her age of 64.

Even in the youth-obsessed media (films, TV, theater) older women are slowly getting desirable roles rather than being considered “over the hill.” Hear it from Glenn Close (71) – a super year for her in film and on Broadway.

There is nothing new about the talent, valuable experience, determination and confident competence of this cohort of women in all fields. Most have been facing stereotyping for years, and many have been helping the younger generations to rise, though their efforts are not always recognized. Shalala was quoted in a New York Times article by Jessica Bennett: “We had professional careers, we were achievers in our fields, and you’re seeing the result of that now. And we’re comfortable in our own skin, and we don’t put up with nonsense, and we have a sisterhood.” “Black women of a certain age especially have lived through a lot,” said Zerlina Maxwell, former media director for Hillary Clinton. Bennet also points to the view that the culture is slowly catching up to the reality of a broader, graying population embracing their age and not wanting to step back from public life.

In addition, lately there has been an influx of articles and books on the elevation and joy of older women.

Steps for Unity and Cautious Action: Food for Thought

I think we can rightly consider this as evidence of a trend questioning stereotypes on age, particularly against women. To make sure this trend is not merely temporary, I offer these thoughts.

  • The Boomer women have a longer, broader perspective than younger women as they have lived long enough to observe, experience and participate in (voluntarily or not) several social movements, economic situations, organizational culture norms, legislative changes and difficulties in maintaining momentum and cohesiveness in strategies.

  • For cross-generational progress to take hold, older generations must make younger women at work and in the latest women’s movement aware of how they fought for change for many years and how things have changed dramatically, if not enough, since their earliest days at work. Further, they are still pushing for changes to benefit all and change organizational cultures. It’s amazing how few younger women know the history.

  • This is a great opportunity for cross-generational conversation for mothers, daughters and co-workers of all genders. Don’t blow it!

  • Corporate hiring managers need to open their eyes, ears and minds to eliminate unfounded ageism, whether to older or younger people. The skills and traits, experience and resilience of Boomer women are what recruiters and talent managers are looking for, but they are not usually considering Boomers.

  • To make serious headway in eliminating the evils of ageism, all generations need to unite in fighting ageism together, that is, join in “collaborageism.”

  • And a serious danger to avoid: As beneficial as the “Me Too” movement has been, women must not alienate the many men who aren’t guilty of bad behavior so that they have allies in gender equity.

  • While rejoicing or at least recognizing the extended tenue of Boomers, we also need to provide ways and room for younger generations to move up and into power. Innovation to create role shifts and collaborative roles is necessary to make this work. Millennials and Gen Zers won’t wait quietly and patiently. What will the new model be?

Grabbing this trend and running with it and avoiding the potholes will not be easy. But it looks like the time to become and stay united, avoiding internal conflict, is now!

The gift of power requires the responsibility of appreciating who came before you and how you might do your part to push forward
— Jill Filipovic, author, "The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit"

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot 2019.