Economy

Face Lifts: A Frightening New Job Strategy

With ageism deeply rooted in economics, an increasing number of midlife people are turning to anti-aging products and surgeries to pass as younger in the marketplace.
A New Yorker cartoon showed two bikini-clad babes frolicking in the waves with one of them saying, "I never thought turning 80 would be so much fun!"

When I saw that image almost a year ago, a light went on in my head. People really do assume that liposuction, Botox, chemical peels, facelifts -- whatever -- work to make people look younger. Since the cartoon shows curvaceous energizing results that presumably can come only from biotechniques, all it mocks is a belief that enhancements work that well. Under the laugh, in other words, is the premise that 60 may be the new 40, but 80 -- no matter how you cut it -- is not the new 20.

Do "anti-aging" products and surgeries work? This is an FAQ for which there is no absolute answer.

It's doubtful. An unprejudiced look around your high-school or college reunion may suggest this. The youngest-looking woman in my class has been letting her hair go gray, doesn't wear makeup and certainly doesn't purchase products from the perfection industries. She is the least lined, the one with the most youthful smile. (She also happens to be one of us who never married and had no children.)

Natural facial irregularities, lines and spots are perfectly compatible with charm, expressiveness, good grooming or whatever is meant by beauty. Gray or white hair looks better on us as we move into our middle years and beyond. (Dye-jobs often clash with our skin tones). I can find beauty in older people. That is what all Americans should be doing: Trying to see aging-as-a-bodily-experience with eyes that can be pleased.

But aging-past-youth is not mainly an aesthetic issue in the United States or anywhere else.

I suspect more midlife people are turning to anti-aging products for financial reasons. They want to look younger not to feel like an ad, but to pass as younger in the marketplaces of life. Middle ageism -- now afflicting people as young as 40 -- has made "looking your age" less valuable.

Economic Basis of Middle Ageism

Suppose we could change our eyes and come to appreciate older people as beautiful, like Maillol statues or Rembrandt portraits? Changing our eyes one by one would certainly help our self-esteem, but it would do next to nothing to thwart ageism. It wouldn't touch the economic basis of middle ageism.

The truth is that the typical household headed by a 47-to-64-year-old is at risk in an insecure U.S. job market. In 2003, it was poorer in constant dollars than a similar household was in 1983 (despite women working!).

Women -- who spend more on "anti-aging" products -- are under particular pressures. Age discrimination complaints by women to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against discrimination have been rising, and though the age of claimants has been dropping in general, the women are younger than the men. At their midlife income peak, 45 to 54, women may earn more than their mothers but they still earn only 76 percent of what men of the same age earn.

Meanwhile, most of the early retired -- female or male -- are not rich people in McMansions but disabled people, according to the Congressional Budget Office (2004).

Longer Work Gaps, Lower Wages

Those looking for employment at midlife can be out of work as much as a month more than the average young adult. When midlife unemployed do find jobs, they're usually at lower wages. In one study by Fidelity, one-third of workers 50 to 59 cashed in their 401(k)s -- their retirement money -- when they left work, a bad sign.

Middle ageism can be the final straw that weakens one's defenses against the rising pressures to not look your age. But anyone hoping to maximize her income by investing in expensive and hazardous products and procedures should think again.

Some people earn more as they age into their middle years because of the remnants of our seniority system. Now business and government get rid of people precisely because they earn more. Dyeing your hair or getting a facelift might help you find a job at midlife, but if your employer has decided to cut back on expensive employees no "rejuvenating" technique will prevail.

Such unacknowledged facts cause the bias against "boomers" as techno-idiots and "deadwood" who persist in wanting to hold onto their jobs! Without such middle-ageism, there would be nothing wrong with no longer being young. It brings many good things: a different kind of good looks, experience, job expertise, resilience. But the cult of youth has grown more vicious in response to the downward pressure on employees' wages.

Looking for Marginal Advantage

People who are desperate about their jobs and income security are often looking for a marginal advantage. Their decision to get a facelift won't be spurred by vanity. They take on debt to pay for surgery just as they might go into hock for job retraining.

In this broader economic context, we can understand how "anti-aging" hooks its followers, despite panic about the technical failures and fear that the product might work and still prove ineffective in the job market.

In light of all this, I suggest that boycotting "anti-aging" products and pressures is a socially generous act.

Those who submit to false advertising and the cult of youth make it harder for their friends and colleagues to resist. They put economic and consumerist pressures on those who might start hating wrinkles they could otherwise accept.

I believe that expensive surgeries and products don't buy youth or beauty. But if they did -- since others cannot afford to do the same -- that raises an additional ethical dilemma.

The health gap between rich and poor is already wide enough. It's measured by access to health care, leisure, healthful food and freedom from stress. These disparities should be fought, not exaggerated.

We must combat middle ageism in its symptoms and in its causes. The alternative is not just that some people will have themselves cut or will risk cancers for "rejuvenation," but that the work-life of the rest of us will lose value, and the human life course meaning.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the prize-winning author of the 2004 Aged by Culture, which was chosen as a noteworthy book of the year by the Christian Science Monitor. She is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.