“Grace and Frankie” and Growing Old in California’s Job Market

Michael Bernick
Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and former Director of the California Employment Development Department

graceandfrankieAs we note from time to time on Fox & Hounds, popular culture often can help us think about employment issues, shedding light on emerging job market dynamics and spurring discussion.

Grace and Frankie is the Netflix comedy-drama series, launched in May 2015, that released its second season of 13 episodes last month. Lily Tomlin (Frankie) and Jane Fonda (Grace) are seventy-something old acquaintances who come to live together after their husbands announce that they have been lovers for years and leave to marry.

In this second season, both Grace and Frankie are floundering, as they try to find a use for their talents. Grace has retired from being the founder and owner of a successful business of beauty products. She tries being a mentor to a bartender who is seeking professional employment, but gives this up when the bartender fails to take her advice. She fills a good amount of her time drinking. Frankie is a painter, but hasn’t sold anything in years. In the season two finale, both women are angry that their ideas are ignored; there seems to no place for them in the business world or even broader society.

From an employment viewpoint, this new second season raises good questions about growing old in today’s job market. What is the current condition of employment for older women? Of older men? Why is Grace so lost, and shouldn’t she try to continue as a business mentor? Should we advise Frankie to continue her painting?

Let’s start with a quick overview of the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on employment for adults over 65. A number of the major indicators show more and more adults over 65 working or actively looking for work.

The number of workers over 65 stood at 5,161,000 in January 2006, and rose to 8,992,000 in the most recent May 2016 numbers. This increase reflects more than the aging of the baby boom population. The percentage of adults over 65 who are employed or looking for work has increased significantly since the turn of the century. In 2000, 12.9% of all adults over 65 were in the labor force. In the most recent BLS data on labor force participation by age groups that percentage had climbed to 18.9%. The increase was greatest among women over 65, who climbed from 9.4% to 15.3% (men increased from 17.7% to 23.4%).

In a recent posting, “Demographic Trends for the 50-and Older Work Force“, Jill Mislinski, Research Director at Advisor Perspectives, charts the increase in labor force participation older workers by sub-groups over 65. Again, women lead the way in all subgroups: jumping from 18.5% in January 2000 to 28.1% today among women 65-69, and from 9.7% to 14.8% among women 70-74 (the Frankie and Grace cohort).

All these data point to more and more opportunity in employment for older workers, especially women. But a more somber picture emerges from employment professionals who are charged with helping older workers find employment. These professionals report older workers facing a youth culture, not only in the oft-cited youth-oriented entertainment industry, but across virtually all sectors.

For example, the NOVA Workforce Development Board is located in the heart of the Silicon Valley, and is charged with helping unemployed workers in the Valley find employment. It enrolls workers of all skill levels, but one of its main clientele has become workers over 45 (considered “mature workers” in the Valley economy). It sees a good number of workers who were in professional positions in tech companies, not only as engineers but also in in human resources or sales or business administration.

These workers usually bring experience, depth of knowledge, contacts and an ability to make the job a key part of their lives. Yet the NOVA counselors report the hiring processes in the major Silicon Valley firms don’t place a lot of weight on these characteristics in contrast to younger and less expensive workers, familiar and comfortable for the younger hiring managers to be around.

Ms. Camille Grabowski is a NOVA job counselor with a practice that focuses on older workers. Her website The 50 Plus Career Coach has a lot of good advice on keeping skills current, and keeping up with the most recent and newest technologies. At the same time, the website is addressed at “overcoming age bias in job search”, and a good number of the strategies involve appearing young and vigorous, interviewing with hiring managers who are often ten or twenty years younger (or more).

Further north in the Bay Area, Ms. Sheri Cooper is president of Fifth Plane Associates, a very active executive placement firm specializing in digital media, telecommunications and CPG. Ms. Cooper brings years of executive placement experience, from both the employer and candidate viewpoints. She has a strong belief in the value that “gray hairs” can bring in judgment and expertise. She does succeed in making matches of older workers with her often-younger-based tech companies.

But she also notes that older workers today seem to get less and less deference. They are only as relevant as their current skills and recent accomplishments and need to prove themselves on an on-going basis. This has always been the case, but she’s noticing an increasing trend of a sort of millennial bias around technology and culture.

A small industry of non-profits has arisen in the past two decades, such as Encore.org and Civic Ventures, to link older workers with purposeful work, paid and unpaid. They send a relentlessly positive message of employment for older workers.

These nonprofits would likely advise Grace not to be discouraged by her failed mentorship with the bartender, but instead to seek out other young entrepreneurs, as well as job seekers, who can benefit from her insights. She could do so as part of a consulting business, or contact one of the groups of retired executives, such as SCORE, who volunteer time.

Frankie likely would be advised to hang in with her painting: the work of painters, writers and other artists often is recognized at advanced ages. Also, Frankie could build on her environmentalist beliefs to volunteer with Save the Rainforest or some other non-profit dedicated to protecting the environment.

All of this advice is sound. But one of the reasons that Grace and Frankie stands out in the television landscape is that it doesn’t try to tie up the action into neat story lines, and suggests a less than smiley-face view of the obstacles for older workers. Grace’s daughter Mallory who has taken over the beauty business doesn’t want Grace’s advice. Frankie will likely face art galleries weary of her age, concerned that her art cannot be hip or contemporary. Even Save the Rainforest young staff might dismiss her as an aging hippie.

By the time we reach our 60s and 70s today, most of us are like the Salesman, “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and shoeshine.” The second season of Grace and Frankie dramatizes this dynamic.

At the end of the second season, Grace and Frankie decide to strike out and start a new business venture (if a somewhat unusual one), and a main storyline of season 3 is likely to be the operation of this business venture. Based on the recent season, the show should continue to spur us to think about opportunities and strategies for growing old in the job market, and also the obstacles.

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