Well Done, Ms. Athill

February 15, 2019


The last volume of Diana Athill’s multi-part memoir was published in 2016 when she was 99 years old. She died last month in London at age 101.

You are forgiven if you’ve never heard of Athill, although she had been a legendary book editor and publisher in England since the 1940s. But she became internationally famous in 2008 with the sixth volume of her autobiography entitled Somewhere Towards the End. Published the year she turned 91, it is a wry, unflinching look at “the inevitable pains, and unexpected pleasures, of aging.”

In her book, Athill thoughtfully but fearlessly tackled the topic of female sexuality—especially her own—after age 60. This prompted a British tabloid newspaper to profile her in an article headlined “Confessions of a Promiscuous 90-Year-Old,” which I imagine helped her book sales tremendously.

Despite her sterling editing credentials, Athill didn’t start writing her own prose until she was in her 40s. This got me to thinking: What if age discrimination had intruded at that point and she had been drummed out of the workplace with more than half of her life still to be lived. (The AARP says that age 45 is when a large majority of working Americans say they’ve either been personally impacted by or known of age discrimination occurring at their job.)

Age discrimination is, of course, illegal. A federal law passed in 1967 protects individuals aged 40 or older from employment discrimination based on age if their employer employs at least 20 workers. Still, age discrimination is rampant, and not only in Hollywood.

Indeed, slightly more than half of full-time, full-year workers with a longtime employer suffered an “involuntary job separation” after age 50 that led to long-term unemployment or reduced earnings for two or more years, according to a disturbing study released recently by the Urban Institute and ProPublica.

“The damage to [these workers’] bottom line is often permanent,” opined the Washington Post. “When many find new positions, they are often jobs that are significantly below both their skill levels and previous pay grades, such as the former corporate executive ProPublica discovered working at a print shop, as a bartender, and staffing the front desk of a local gym.”

Talk to friends over the age of 45 or 50 who were laid off and they’ll tell you how long it took to find a new job—if they found a new job. A couple of my over-50 women friends who lost their jobs during the Great Recession that began in 2008 never did find comparable employment. At least, however, they were able to eventually draw their pensions.

This will not be the refuge of younger Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers or Millennials, though. Workplace pensions for these generations are, essentially, a thing of the past.

Age discrimination, though, is difficult to prove. And, since a 2009 Supreme Court decision (Gross v. FBL Financial Services), it has been even harder. Workers must now demonstrate their age was the main reason they were laid off, and not just a contributing factor.

It’s a tough standard to meet, so every year since 2009, members of Congress have attempted to pass legislation to overturn Gross. With Democrats now controlling the U.S. House of Representatives, it’s thought the bill to restore legal protections for older workers will have a better chance of passage.

In the meantime, employers continue to be reluctant to hire or retain older workers, despite reams of evidence older workers bring important traits to the job, such as superior attendance records, a low rate of accidents, a high level of satisfaction, and eagerness to learn new skills. And of course, they bring decades of experience.

People today are living longer and working longer, and workers over the age of 40 represent an increasingly large percentage of the U.S. workforce. So why do many employers push older workers out of their jobs? Why shun such an important subset of the population? It doesn’t make sense.

Happily, this didn’t happen to Diana Athill, who bequeathed us thousands of pages of tart, honest observations based on a century of living and gift-wrapped in sparkling prose. As an editor and publisher, she presented us with the writings of John Updike, Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and many others.

Well done, Ms. Athill.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).