Anti-Aging Boom Preys on Jobless Fears at Midlife

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Middle-aged, worried about income security and feeling susceptible to "anti-aging" investments as a career aid? Margaret Morganroth Gullette probes midlife employment anxieties and the rise of botox, liposuction and face lifts.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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Margaret Morganroth Gullette(WOMENSENEWS)--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.

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