Editor’s Note: This article is part of Exit Interview, a series of conversations about leaving one’s career.
In 2014, Gordon Rothman, a multimedia producer who worked in TV news, lost his job at CBS in a mass layoff. He didn’t sit idle. Rothman had already been volunteering for Gatewave, a radio reading service for the blind, and became the nonprofit’s executive director. He saved the group from financial ruin, earning the title “New Yorker of the Week” from local news. But Rothman, who was in his late 50s, couldn’t support his family by volunteering. Despite picking up new skills and landing freelance work with big publishing houses, a full-time job remained elusive.
The share of older Americans in the workforce is growing: By 2024, 25 percent of workers will be 55 or older. But despite rules against age discrimination, ageism in recruiting and in the workplace crops up in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, from targeted job placements online to some corporations’ shunting out older hires to hit the “correct seniority mix. Of course, being young sometimes can hurt job applicants too: When Rothman’s daughter was let go from her entry-level job in her early 20s, she also had trouble finding work with reasonable wages and benefits.
I spoke with Rothman for The Atlantic’s series Exit Interview to learn how he adapted. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Catie Lazarus: You worked at CBS for decades. Did being part of a mass layoff help cushion the fall?
Gordon Rothman: The layoff was probably the least embarrassing part. It was one of these terrible conference-room events. Twenty people at the same time all being told by the head of CBS News, trailed by two human-resources personnel. I was assured that this was nothing personal; I hadn’t screwed up. You don’t take that personally.
Lazarus: How soon did you find new work?
Rothman: After losing that job, I volunteered full-time as the executive director of Gatewave, a radio station that serves people who are blind or visually impaired. I thought, “This is really my opportunity.” Gatewave was in a death spiral—it owed a lot of money. I got us out of debt, to a place of sustainability. But it wound up not leading me anywhere. After two years volunteering full-time, there still was not enough money to pay me. I returned to media production. I landed a full-time freelance gig in February, but the assignment only lasted a couple of months. I am freelancing now, but there is not enough of it. It is seasonal.
Lazarus: How do you fit decades of experience into one page for a resume?
Rothman: Good question. I drew up a summary of the kinds of skills and projects I worked on and backed it up with real job titles. But, so often, I see signs that they’re looking for someone younger.
Lazarus: Like what?
Rothman: Ads ask for “digital natives” and people who “live, eat, and dream social media.” On occasion, I get past the anonymous algorithms of an online application and actually score a meeting, but experience silence afterwards. Companies get advice like “Hire someone on the way up, not on the way down.” I am probably not on the way up. People tell horror stories of hiring managers trying to bring in someone “over 50.”
Lazarus: How does ageism play out when it’s face-to-face?
Rothman: No one says to your face, “We thought you were 35.” I’ve had some interviews that seem like perfect fits, then someone else gets the job. They never tell you you are too old.
I am experienced. I have heard that my resume is impressive a lot; I expect that I will find something.
Lazarus: What do you think is behind ageism?
Rothman: The assumption is that the greater energy, drive, and willingness to work will come from younger applicants, and higher health-care expenditures are likely to come from older applicants. In my case, I was able to keep my CBS health plan, and will stay on it, so I wish I could jump in and say, “You don’t have to worry how much my health care would cost.” That may not be at the forefront of the recruiters’ minds, but it is there somewhere.
Lazarus: How do you deal with the frustration of being ready, willing, and able to work while work remains elusive?
Rothman: I want to be making audio and video projects that feel challenging and worth doing, but whatever it is, I will throw myself into it. Being “betwixt and between,” one of my favored euphemisms these days, is tough on the self-image. I know all the ways I could be valuable, but I’m not put to work on them. If you don’t manage to re-insinuate yourself, it is kind of embarrassing. For a lot of years, I was happy to identify with my work, even if I often had to explain to people what it meant to be a television producer. I miss the all-hands-on-deck election-night coverage. CBS created new job titles for me because my boss knew I could do whatever needed to be done.
Lazarus: Any upsides to the time off?
Rothman: It gave me a chance to throw myself full-time into a project, running the radio service for blind and visually impaired listeners. I was able to pry the project out of debt and make it sustainable. And having a sporadic working schedule has permitted some great trips and extracurricular projects—a week of biking around Italy, building a raised-bed garden—and I play piano daily.
Lazarus: Your daughter is in her early 20s, and is also looking for a job. What is it like undergoing this together?
Rothman: I am hoping we both get jobs, but the nature of today’s job environment makes it a challenge for both of us. At her age, she is finding employers do not want to hire her directly or pay her basic wages or benefits, so it can be frustrating.
Lazarus: Has it brought the two of you closer?
Rothman: There are parallels, and there are disconnects. She is living under our roof. She hears my nudging her on expanding her horizons for her work search more than she would like, I am sure. I wish I could approach that from having a full-time job of my own. I have a couple feelers out, so I don’t feel I am at the end of my rope.
Lazarus: Now that you’ve been freelancing, have you given up looking for a full-time job?
Rothman: I’d take the right full time-time job or full-time freelance opportunity, if there is enough of it. But I’ve spent the last year directing audiobooks and launching my own business, AuthorDirect Audio, to coach authors who record their own books. I have not let ageism defeat me.