Hitting The ‘Glass Wall’: On Age and Inequality in the Cultural Industries

By Sven Brodmerkel and Richie Barker

Many segments of the Cultural and Creative Industries (CCI) are characterised by extraordinarily skewed age profiles. For example, a recent survey of 15 leading Australian advertising agencies revealed that 62 per cent of their employees were under 35 years old, and just 10 per cent were older than 45 years. These figures mirror those of the British advertising industry where the average age of an agency employee is 33.6 years, and less than 6 per cent of agency staff are over 50 years old, according to data released by the Institute for Practitioners of Advertising (IPA) in 2016.

Surprisingly, inequalities based on age have so far received very little attention in the critical research into the CCI. What discourses, representations and (purported) economic and organisational imperatives cause and maintain this distorted age profile? How do potentially ageist practices manifest themselves in creative workplaces? And how do older cultural workers experience, negotiate and strategically manage their professional identities in relation to these practices?

In our new article ‘Hitting the glass wall: Investigating everyday ageism in the advertising industry’ in The Sociological Review we explore these questions in more detail. We interviewed experienced Creative Directors, Art Directors and Copywriters (‘creatives’, in short) who were, due to being aged 35 or older, in danger of hitting the ‘glass wall’ – a notion we use to describe the ‘horizontal version’ of the proverbial glass ceiling, making career sustainability unattainable for most creatives but a selected few.

Based on this research we identified three key themes that emerged from the accounts of our participants and which provide, as we suggest, conceptual avenues for further research into age inequalities in the CCI and beyond.

Firstly, the research revealed the ‘unspeakability’ of ageism. Many creatives appeared to be ambivalent about the ageist nature of the advertising industry and the constitutive characteristics of ageism in general, despite providing detailed accounts of workplace practices that could be defined as such. Standing out among these was the common perception amongst older creatives that they were predominantly allocated projects with limited creative potential, and the ‘conventional’ work they produce as a result served as evidence of their increasing lack of imagination.

However, despite these marginalising experiences, particularly male creatives reported that they had not been exposed to ‘explicit’ or ‘blatant’ ageism. Ageism thus shares, as we suggest, central characteristics with Rosalind Gill’s conceptualisation of ‘new sexism’. She describes it as a ‘diverse set of malleable representations, discourses and practices of power’, rendering sexism unintelligible and unmanageable. It is thus an important task to develop a critical vocabulary that would help us conceptualise ageism more clearly and allow for meaningful conversations about these issues that go beyond the widespread argument – at least according to our participants – that experienced creatives are simply ‘too expensive’.

Secondly, our research revealed the fluid and precarious interrelationship between marginalisation based on chronological age and the immaterial labour of ‘youthfulness’. Drawing on Lisa Adkins’ influential analysis of gender in post-Fordist labour relations, our research suggests that in neoliberal economies ‘age’ is being reconstituted from type or kind to a cultural object whose value predominantly depends on audience effects. In other words, similar to the way gender has become a ‘performance of femininity’, age turns into the fluid strategic artifice of performing youthfulness.

Thus, producing and embodying appropriate forms of youthfulness is for older creatives an aspect of daily life that requires careful management. For example, they are, in the words of one of our participants, ‘not allowed to age beyond 35’. But they are also – particularly in meetings with clients – expected to take on the role of the ‘token old guy’, embodying experience and gravitas. This paradox illustrates how for older creatives age turns into a slippery socio-cultural object which is constantly ‘on the move’ and needs to be approached with competent ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’.

The negative effects of this constant re-valorisation of different forms of youthfulness are particularly noticeable for our participants in relation to social media. Social media currently play and important role in advertising, and – as our informants explain – in the marginalisation of older creatives. The charge here is not that older creatives lack the practical competence how to use social media. In fact, many of our informants used social media extensively for job-related networking as well as private purposes. Rather, older creatives are considered to lack the tacit knowledge that would allow them to meaningfully participate in the production and circulation of the valorised forms of youthfulness associated with ‘online culture’.

Based on these findings, we suggest that conceptualising the so far sociologically under-theorised notion of ageism from a perspective that pays close attention to these fluid ‘economies of youthfulness’, as David Farrugia calls the immaterial economies build around the circulation of valorised forms of ‘youthful’ tastes, attitudes and demeanours. Investigating how imaginaries of ‘youthfulness’ are being constructed, circulated and valorised within different segments of the CCI could thus be a promising approach for rendering ageism as a more intelligible phenomenon.

Thirdly, we noticed the prevalence of what we call ‘resigned resilience’ as the particular attitude adopted by our informants in response to these marginalising practices. It is productive to relate this particular psycho-social disposition to the growing literature on the ‘entrepreneurial subjectivities’ of cultural workers and the ‘feeling rules’ that guide their identity negotiation. Recent research by Christian Scharff has revealed the tendency of cultural workers to embrace risk, hide injuries, individualise failure and disavow inequalities. We identified similar tendencies in the accounts of our participants. Most notably, the figure of the ‘jaded creative’ was repeatedly invoked to describe the industry’s ‘disavowed other’ – a ‘cynical know-it-all’, lacking ‘energy’ and ‘enthusiasm’, and producing ‘stale ideas’ since they did not ‘push themselves’.

However, at the same time the creatives we interviewed were acutely aware of the structural forces shaping the industry and the exploitative nature of their workplaces. The entrepreneurial spirit commonly ascribed to cultural workers in general – and to advertising practitioners in particular – was not completely internalised and fully embraced by our participants; rather, it was experienced as being imposed upon them. As a consequence, the dominant attitudinal disposition of the older creatives we talked to is best described as one of ‘resigned resilience’: a complex amalgam of entrepreneurial dispositions on the one hand, and residual values based on communities of practice, mentorship, craft, and social critique on the other.

This ambivalence provides, as we argue, opportunities for charting ways forward. If we follow Beverly Skeggs in her call to abandon the search for a ‘coherent political subject’ and instead focus on the contradictions that enable resentment, the notion of ‘resigned resilience’ could not only serve as a conceptual framework for investigating more thoroughly the ambivalent disposition we assume many older cultural workers share with regard to their profession. It could also enable us to identify practical forms of resistance to the demands of entrepreneurial neoliberalism.

Sven Brodmerkel (PhD, University of Vechta) is an Assistant Professor for Advertising and Integrated Marketing Communications at Bond University/Australia. His research focuses on the workplace sociology of the creative industries as well as on the critical study of new media technologies in the context of promotional communication. He is co-author of the book ‘Brand Machines, Sensory Media and Calculative Culture’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Richie Barker (PhD, Monash University) is a lecturer with the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. His research focuses on creative practice and digital media use in the professional communication industries of advertising and public relations. Richie’s most recent research explores the influence of algorithmic gatekeeping on the everyday creative research practices of advertising art directors and copywriters.​ 

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