The XX Factor

Oh, To Be 50 and Considered “Young”

I agree with Jess , Dahlia and others that Elena Kagan is a screen onto which we project our anxieties about work, ambition, motherhood, and marriage. She may (or may not) be unusual in the intensity of her ambition, but she seems relevant to many women in that she raises anew the decades-old discussion over work, family, and the difficulty of pursuing both. And I think Lisa Belkin’s piece yesterday in the New York Times Magazine is terrific. In it she explored the ironic fact that the first two female Supreme Court justices were able to fashion lives that included husbands and children, despite (or because of) their having risen to prominence in an era hostile to female achievement; whereas Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan came of age in an era during which there were so many spurs to women’s ambition, so many opportunities, that women, paradoxically, had less freedom-or may have felt they did-to raise families as they were pursuing their professional rise.

Increasingly, though, what interests me about Kagan is not her parental or marital status or, God knows, her sexual orientation. It’s her age.

Rather, it’s her age and how it’s perceived. Throughout the discussions of her nomination, the other common trope-the thing people are constantly observing and commenting upon-is how young Kagan is. Why, she’s only 50! If confirmed, she will be the youngest sitting justice on the bench. Similar things were said about Chief Justice John Roberts when he was appointed. A veritable baby! A toddler on a panel where the average age is close to 70. Better find out what she really thinks about things-if you can-because she’s likely to be with us for a long, long time. At 50-the point is made-Kagan has, what, 20 years to exert her influence on American jurisprudence. Or, more likely, 30. Maybe even 40. Why, it’s as if her professional career is just getting started.

To be 50 and feel as though you have a rich and productive working life ahead of you, to feel as though you have something relevant-not only intelligence but wisdom and experience-to offer your profession. How many 50-year-old Americans can say the same at this moment?

Not many. For fiftysomethings and older workers who lost jobs during this lingering economic crisis, returning to the workforce is much, much harder than for workers belonging to younger cohorts. And for those still lucky enough to have jobs, there remains the uneasy, nagging feeling that your paycheck is too high, your skills too outdated, for you to be truly wanted in your workplace. Fifty tends to be the age at which workers qualify for a buyout when companies offer them, as plenty of companies having been doing in the recent past. Some workers are happy to take these offers; others (and I know them-journalism has been hard-hit) feel that their career abruptly ended 10 or 15 years before they thought it would. Even worse is a layoff or, of course, the abrupt disappearance of your company. Nationwide, I think it’s fair to say, the message is that employers often would prefer to off-load fiftysomething workers-with their salary expectations, their dependents, their mortgages, their need to pay college tuition-in order to replace them with cheaper, Web-savvy twentysomethings. And it’s worse, of course, for industrial workers. The economic crisis, combined with the decline and relocation abroad of the industrial sector and the full flowering of the information age have made many fiftysomething and sixtysomething Americans feel that they are in the precise opposite position of Elena Kagan: They have few to no options at all. What many workers hear is that, at 50, they are too expensive, too insufficiently skilled in modern technology; they have the wrong degrees or, worse, no degree at all. Anachronisms. Woolly mammoths. Sliding into oblivion.

At 50, Elena Kagan is where a person really should be: reaching a new level in her career, a whole new set of opportunities and challenges to which she can apply her formidable energy, learning, and wisdom, stretch herself to a new level in a venue where her skills and talents matter more than ever. This is a stark difference from the situation of so many American fiftysomethings, fighting fears of layoffs, a sense of obsolescence, anxiety at not having the skills necessary to survive in a new economy, and not much of an administration-led push to train them, that I’m aware of. People wonder whether Kagan, not having children, can understand the woes of “ordinary people.” I would argue that it is in their extraordinary job security, not so much their sexual orientation or marital or parental status, that the Supreme Court justices are most at variance with the way ordinary people, just now, live.

Photograph of Elena Kagan by Alex Wong/Getty Images.