We’re Getting Too Old For This Shit

Ah, Golden Years! So full of life!
We’ve never felt bett—arrghhh, my hip…!
I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or cyclical, but every few months, I decide to piss people off. Mind you, it’s not because I care about pissing people off, but I know that if I just offer my unvarnished opinion, there’s gonna be some blowback. The most famous example of this is probably my essay entitled Passing On The Diversity Pass, which not only annoyed some of my own readers, but was sent around the internet by outraged readers. I occasionally track back to the incoming reference links.

As a result, I know that a good amount of people out there think I’m a racist douchemonger (although I did learn one interesting thing…a number of black people are apparently horrified that white people do not wash raw meat before cooking it…a cultural divide I didn’t know existed). So it goes.

Hey…old folks?

It’s your turn.

Last week, letters were mailed out to nearly seventy thousand Americans who have worked in one form or another as a professional television or screen writer. Those letters were a notice that, as a result of a class action lawsuit, lawyers were going to be getting their hands on the files kept by our health insurance fund.

We were given the option of requesting that our private data remain private.

I availed myself.

The class action lawsuit is an ageism lawsuit. The plaintiffs allege that the companies that comprise what we call “Hollywood” systematically and wrongfully discriminate against people over the age of 40, and they’re looking for payback.

One plaintiff, a man I know well and respect, has suggested that restitution take the form of financial compensation plus a new employment system in which all writing jobs be monitored and allotted across age groups.

I reject both the premise and the proposed solution with every ounce of my being.

First, let me get the obvious question out of the way.

I’m not over 40.

In 11 days, I’ll be 36.

On the other hand, if someone found out that DuPont had exposed all Americans to a chemical that makes your feet rot off the second you hit 40, I’d back a class action suit, giving that I only had four short years left to enjoy my toes.

I’ll be in the “protected class” of over-40 writers in four years, and I still say, “No.”


Because I think the problem isn’t about discrimination.

To me, discrimination in unemployment is the irrational deprivation of employment opportunities on the basis of sex, age, race, religion, creed or sexual orientation. That’s it.

An imbalance in the distribution of employment doesn’t necessarily signify discrimination. If it did, why is the Gray Brigade going after Hollywood first? When was the last time you saw a 50 year-old working at The Gap, or behind the concession stand at a movie theater, or at a video game store, or bouncing in front of a club?

There are two non-discriminatory reasons large groups can be underserved by employment opportunities.

First, those groups aren’t interested in taking the jobs.

Second, those groups don’t fit the requirements for the jobs.

It’s the second category that gets tricky, but it’s certainly a reality. Some jobs require heavy lifting. Some jobs require physical beauty. Such is life.

In the case of writing, it’s true that the large bulk of writing is done by people between the ages of 25 and 50. After 50, the numbers start to dwindle. After 60, they really start to shrink, and once you get into the 70’s and 80’s, you’re talking about a very select (and hardy) group.


Why would Hollywood discriminate against 50-somethings and senior citizens?

Is it because they just hate old people? No. They hire directors and actors over the age of 50 all the time. Is it because Hollywood is run by the young, and young people hate old people? No, Hollywood is run entirely by men and women in their 50’s and over. Is it because older people are “bad in a room”? Nah, we write scripts, and scripts don’t have faces.

Is it because there’s something intrinsic to the work done by older writers that has a discouraging effect on their ability to get hired?

Uh oh….

What if the answer to that question is (gasp) “yes”?

A few years ago, I spoke to a group of recent Princeton graduates who had just arrived in L.A., fresh-faced and ready to being their careers as writers. I looked out at the room full of 21 to 25 year-olds, and I said:

Here’s the bad news. No matter how talented you are right now, I’m better than you. I’m better than you, because I’ve been doing it for a while, and that experience is invaluable. Ah, but here’s the good news. You have more energy than I do. You don’t have a spouse, or children. You’re not bored. You’re not frustrated. You’re not tired of all the crap I’ve been dealing with for years. Use that. That’s how you’re going to take me down.

It’s true.

Writing novels can be a leisurely endeavor. Writing for television or movies can’t. At the end of the day, we’re employees on deadlines. Whether it’s the trenches of weekly television or the crucible of production rewrites on the movie set, professional screenwriting is a heartless taskmaster of a vocation.

Who succeeds?

Talent trumps everything, but here’s a short list of attributes that tend to help: humility, drive, energy, ambition, work-for-reasonable-pay, low expectations, hunger, fearlessness, no kids, no wife, no mortgage, no life, no need for self-examination, no depression, no bad hip, no doctor’s appointments, no self-respect, no pride, no arrogance, no reminiscing, no condescension, no sense of entitlement, no better days to compare the present to and no victimhood to get in the way of the work.

Not all of those things are what you’d call “good for you” (no life is a bad thing, but hey, if you’re working staff on a sitcom, it’s pretty much s.o.p.). Still, they’re things that tend to help one achieve success in a demanding business, and they’re also things that tend to be associated with life in one’s 20’s and 30’s.

Less so in one’s 40’s and beyond.

Look, I wish I lived in a world where a sense of personal dignity helped you get work in Hollywood, but the desperate and the shameless seem to be lapping those of us who maintain a sense of pride.

There’s another possible explanation (and one of Ted’s observations).

Hollywood isn’t a meritocracy, but that’s partly not Hollywood’s fault. Writing isn’t something one can do as qualitatively consistent as, say, plumbing. In other words, not every script is going to be great.

You may start your career with a couple of great scripts, maybe better than what your average script quality is over the course of your lifetime.

The longer you work, the more evident and predictive your batting average becomes.

Makes sense, right? Sure, Darin Erstad hit .355 in 2000, but he never even broke .300 before or since.

And so, as you make your way into your 40’s, if your overall average is lower than your early average, you’re going to get culled. It’s just a function of being around long enough for people to decide that they don’t really want you after all.

There’s another possible theory, and this is the one that really annoys people when I bring it up.

Maybe our skills start to diminish as we age.

It’s certainly not something that’s inevitable or absolute. There are screenwriters in their 70’s who are better right now than I’ll ever be.

But are they better than they were in their 40’s?

Losing heat off the fastball seems like it’s almost a must-happen. Maybe I think that because I do not and have never bought into the baby-boomer fantasy of “the golden years are the best years of our lives”. This notion that growing old somehow frees us to have fun and live life to its fullest and be the best we’ve ever been is mostly promoted by drug companies selling medicines to old people whose hearts, livers, pancreases, kidneys and penises have stopped working properly.

I believe this is a basic truth of life.

Getting old is NOT fun. It’s not the best years of your life. It’s not golden. As far as I can tell, it’s wrinkly, dry, painful and depressing (particularly when the rash of weddings and baby showers of your youth are replaced by the funerals of your departed friends). The only thing that can save you as you grow old, I suspect, is a fond willingness to embrace the downward spiral in which you find yourself.

To quote George Harrison, “As I’m sitting here doing nothing but aging…”

…well, that’s me and you. I’m growing older with every passing second. My life is finite. My best physical years are already behind me. My brain is likely starting to slide. The very existence of my children—my replacements—signals my inevitable obsolescence.

I believe I’m still getting better as a writer. Experience is the boon of age, counteracting the effects of time. At some point, though, the lines on the graph cross. The net gain begins to slide into deficit.

Why is this so awful to contemplate, much less admit?

One day, I just won’t have it the way I used to. I will write, and no one will want it. That will be a sad day. That day will no doubt be as sad as the day I need bifocals, or the day my knees start to ache permanently, or the day I fall and snap a wrist, or the day the doctor finally gives me the “I’m going to tell you that you’re going to die” look, and then tells me I’m going to die.

Lawsuits are just another way to scream at mortality and pretend we have control.

We do not.

When my time comes, when I’m knocked off my perch, when all the doors finally close in my face, I’m gonna pack up the laptop and retire. I will embrace the verdict of my fellow man, as brutal as it is, because it is as it must be.

The world is for the young…

…said the man who shall be old.

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