Stories

Can Aging Kill Your Freelance Career?

By Geoff Williams February 17th, 2016

Age can sneak up on your career just like it sneaks up on your body. Some publications or companies you wrote for will cease to exist, your mentors will begin to retire, and eventually your LinkedIn profile seems like it should belong in a freelance writing museum.

Maybe it’s the gray hair in your online photos. Or maybe it’s hearing colleagues younger than you complain about the scarcity of work in this rapidly changing world—if they’re having issues, how am I supposed to survive?

Apparently I’m not alone in my concerns. TV Land’s new original show Younger features a single mom who tries to re-enter the publishing workforce at age 40. Determined to hide her age, Sutton Foster’s character Liza Miller passes herself off as 26.

I’m a 46-year-old freelance writer. But I haven’t pulled out the hair dye or plastered younger photos of myself all over social media. Because from what I can tell, freelance writing is one of the most ageism-proof careers out there.

Here’s why.

Digital communication makes ageism difficult

Writers can crawl out of bed and spend all day on the computer—no face-to-face interaction needed. Occasionally a meeting with a client or an assignment will force you out into the real world or onto Skype, but for the most part nobody will ever know what you look like.

Old or young, it’s hard to notice a person’s age via email or telephone. As a result, it’s difficult for clients to judge you based on your age like they may in an office setting. Lucy Beebe Tobias, a retired journalist in Florida who still freelances as a travel writer, appreciates that distance.

“The great thing about freelance writing is you hardly ever meet an editor. It is all email—query, work, and editing. So that is great for those of us who are over 40 and don’t want [others] to count the wrinkles,” Tobias said.

Joni Holderman, a North Carolina-based freelance writer specializing in résumé writing and ghostwriting, agreed. “It’s relatively easy to conceal your age through email. Use lots of exclamation points,” she joked.

Quality work is what really matters

Cynthia MacGregor is 72, and not at all concerned about ageism.

“Most of my writing and editing clients never meet me face to face, so they don’t know my age—and those who do don’t seem to care one whit,” said MacGregor, a Florida-based freelance writer and editor. “The publishers who publish my books certainly don’t care either. All anyone cares about is whether I can do a good job writing and editing. So if it’s not a concern to them, why should I worry about it?”

Bill Peatman, a 54-year-old content director at a marketing company in California, said that while he occasionally encounters a younger marketing executive who assumes that someone over 40 can’t write for social media, those naysayers can be won over. The writing profession, he said, “rewards quality.”

Tobias said that a freelance writer will make it for two reasons: They research and write well, and they give the editor what the editor wants.

“Are either of those things age-dependent?” she asked. “No. It is about ability, not age.”

Technology can help, no matter your age

You can’t assume that what you write will always be relevant just because you’re a competent wordsmith.

“It’s essential to embrace change and keep your skills sharp with the latest technology,” Holderman said.

Robyn Davis Sekula, a 44-year-old freelance writer and social media consultant in Kentucky, said that if you are dismissive of social media and new trends in writing, “you are prematurely aging yourself.”

“You’re also sending a signal to your clients that you’re not interested in learning new skills, and that you’re not curious about new ways that people communicate,” she said. “You should be. As a journalist, you should always be curious.”

Peatman concurs.

“Every year I invest a few thousand dollars and hundreds of learning hours to stay on top of the latest technologies, techniques, and thought leadership in my industry,” he said. “If you are constantly growing, your professional life becomes more fun and more satisfying every year. The difference is attitude and effort, not age.”

If all else fails, become an age expert

If you really do feel discouraged by ageism, whether real or perceived, then consider steering your writing toward subjects that appeal to readers your own age or older.

Carol Marak, 64, is a columnist and editor at SeniorCare.com. “Since my age resonates with topics of discussion, I never worry about ageism in the industry. That would be an oxymoron since professionals and thought leaders who work directly with older people abhor ageism,” she said.

As for as writing for this age group, Marak adds: “The older I get, the better it is for me.”

None of us are getting any younger. If you’re an older freelancer concerned or confronted with ageism, don’t pretend to be younger like Liza on Younger. As long as you’re willing to keep adapting, evolving, and improving your skills, as you should do at any age, ageism is a problem you can write your way out of.

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