The country I live in is built for the young.
The population however, is aging rapidly.
It’s a huge problem, and a tremendous opportunity.
In as little as 15 years, the U.S. is expected to be home to 73 million people over the age of 65. That’s about 33 million more than today.
The Baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are now between 51 and 69 years old. According to a 2011 Associated Press and LifeGoesStrong.com survey, 42% of those who are still working, are delaying retirement. 25% claim they will never retire.
Behind these rather boring numbers are real people. They may be friends or members of your family. Or you may belong to that group yourself. If that’s the case, you could be part of the first generation that grew up with television. You know, the people who still remember Gilligan’s Island, and where they were the day John F. Kennedy was killed.
I’m not of that generation, but I remember my parents waking me up in the middle of the night to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. I remember the end of the Vietnam war, the oil embargo, and the Berlin Wall coming down. I remember getting my first personal computer, a cordless phone, and an Internet connection.
I don’t feel like a dinosaur yet, but that’s only a matter of time. Imagine me in 1982. I was eighteen, and I presented my first show on national radio in the Netherlands. Since then I spent most of my days with a microphone eight inches from my nose.
Every time people refer to me as a voice-over veteran I cringe in disbelief. Please don’t tell me I am that old! And every time I land a job I say to myself: “Thank goodness I’m still relevant!” It’s pathetic, and I know it.
If Annie Lennox can rock the mic at the Grammys at age 60, I have no excuse or reason to feel sorry for myself. But how will I feel ten years from now, or twenty? Will I be one of the 42% that delays retirement… indefinitely? Will there still be a younger generation willing and able to pay for their elders? Will I still be relevant?
THE AGING VOICE ACTOR
When I look at my older voice-over colleagues, I wonder what it’s like to be them. How do they handle the pressure of being a professional in a fast-paced industry where technology is changing the name of the game? A game taken over by like youngsters who are like totally into virtual reality and stuff… like that.
One of my friends -let’s call her Lizzy- turned sixty-six this year. After she retired as headmistress at a private school, she just couldn’t sit still. People always said that she had a powerful, resonant voice, and she loved reading to children. So, when one of her teachers mentioned voice acting, she perked up.
Thankfully, Lizzy had saved some money, and she hired a great voice-over coach. After twelve long months she converted a small guest room into a home studio, and even got herself a real Neumann microphone! A thousand dollars or so later, she had a demo she could pass around. With plenty of time on her hands, Lizzy was ready to break into the business!
Soon she discovered that having time, money, and a distinctive voice does not make a career. Finding work was hard, especially because Lizzy had never liked using a computer. “I don’t need a website,” she said. “That’s for the kids. I’ll do things the old-fashioned way. And forget about Facebook. I’m not going to waste my time chit-chatting about nothing.”
Her son convinced her to get a laptop, and helped her sign up for an online casting service. Once Lizzy became familiar with the inner workings of this service, she made a discovery that left her depressed for days.
“All the jobs on this site are for perky 20 to 40 year olds,” Lizzy said. “If you ever need an example of ageism, this is it. No one wants to hire an old headmistress. What am I supposed to do?”
But a week later her spirits were up. A client in Sweden needed a grandma for a number of English children’s stories, and he said Lizzy’s voice was perfect. “Can we set up a Skype session so I can give you some guidance?” he asked. Lizzy froze. She had heard of Skype, but had no idea what it was or how to use it.
“And,” said the producer, “once I have given you some pointers, I take it you can record the rest of the script without my help. We do expect you to deliver clean, edited audio that is ready to use. That’s not a problem, is it?”
“No, no, of course not,” mumbled Lizzy.
“Well, I’ll email you the script, and eh… can you send me the audio in let’s say.… four days? And shall we do our Skype session two days from now? Is ten o’clock your time okay?”
When Lizzy put the phone down she panicked because she realized she was not even close to being ready. What had she gotten herself into? That evening her son installed Skype on her computer, and showed her how to use it. He even took a morning off work, so he could be there when Sweden called.
MESSING UP BIG TIME
Once the connection was made and Lizzy started reading the script, everything was fine. Sven the producer seemed happy with her narration, and within the hour, Lizzy had recorded four three-minute stories. She even remembered how to edit the audio the way her coach had shown her. Things were looking up!
The next day she received a call from the client. He loved her storytelling, but he said they couldn’t use the audio. “Why not?” Lizzy wanted to know.
“Because of all the mouth noises,” Sven said. “I thought you would send me clean audio. That was our agreement.”
“Let me see what I can do,” said Lizzy, and she went back to her studio. She must have listened to her stories four or five times, but she didn’t hear what the client was talking about. What on earth was going on?
She asked her son to come over and have a listen. After a few minutes he looked at her and said: “Mom, are you sure you didn’t hear all those clicks and smacks? They’re all over the place.”
“Not really,” answered Lizzy.
“Well, that explains why you have been talking louder lately. I think you should see an audiologist. Get your ears checked. And when’s the last time you’ve been to the dentist? I have a feeling you may need new dentures.”
“Ah, the joys of old age,” said Lizzy. “The joys of old age.”
Two months and two hearing aids later, Lizzy missed being at school. A year ago, people still knew who she was. When she spoke, they listened to her. They even did what she told them to do. She missed being social.
In the world of voice acting, no one knew who she was, and no one cared. People were not polite. They expected her to drop whatever she was doing to record a demo. They never told her why she didn’t book a job she’d auditioned for. Whatever happened to patience and good manners?
When she called her coach, he wasn’t very supportive.
“Lizzy, clients don’t owe you an explanation,” he said. “We’ve talked about that. You may not have that young, hip voice everyone is looking for these days, but there are still jobs out there. It takes time to build up a network and a reputation. You’ve got to work at it. Every. Single. Day.”
He paused for a moment and said: “Lizzy are you listening?”
“A client doesn’t work on your schedule. You work on his or hers. And if you want people to find you, you need to have an online presence. You need to be comfortable with technology. I know you don’t like computers, but clients don’t care about what you like or don’t like. If you want to play the game, you have to live by their rules, no matter how old or how young you are.”
Spring was in the air. Outside, kids were playing tag. They were obviously having a good time. “There’s nothing like the sound of children laughing,” Lizzy thought. It always made her happy.
“Now, Lizzy, dear, can I ask you a question?” said her coach.
“Go ahead,” said a distracted Lizzy.
“What is it that you really want? Why did you want to become a voice-over?”
The answer immediately popped into Lizzy’s mind.
“Because I love telling stories!”
“Then why don’t you go out and do that!” her coach said. “There’s no need to stay home and stare at a screen all day long, hoping to get the perfect part. If you have stories to tell, start telling them!”
FINDING A PURPOSE
Two weeks later, Lizzy invited me to come down to the library. Ten four-year olds sat in a semicircle around her. I’d never seen a group of kids being so attentive. And when Lizzy started telling her stories, you could hear a pin drop. The toddlers were mesmerized.
“Lizzy, they absolutely loved you!” I said after the kids were gone. “You were fantastic! Now, are we still on for tomorrow?”
“What’s tomorrow?” asked Lizzy.
“In that case, I can’t make it,” she said. I’m going to the hospital.”
“Oh no, is something wrong?” I wanted to know.
“I’m fine,” said Lizzy. “I’m going to the children’s ward to tell some more stories.”
“But what about your voice-over career?” I asked. “Weren’t you going to set up a website, and do some more auditions?”
“Oh forget that,” Lizzy responded. “There are so many places where I can make myself useful. This world needs more volunteers than voice actors, and I need to be around people. When I looked into the eyes of those children this morning, there was a connection. I felt I was doing something meaningful. I bet that’s not something you can find on Facebook.”
“Oh Lizzy,” I said, “when I’m your age, can I be you?”
“No way,” she answered. “I’m already taken!”
When we walked out of the library, she gave me a big hug and asked jokingly:
“Do you want to buy a microphone? It’s a Newman. It didn’t do me any good.”
“Hang on to it my friend,” I said. “Sweden might be calling back soon. Over there they know how to take care of senior citizens. They treat them with the respect they deserve.”
“Oh, stop it,” said Lizzy. I’m not ready for retirement.
I may be old school, but I am no old fool!”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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photo credit: Kids and Library! via photopin (license)