"If life begins at 40, then most employers must think it ends at 50, and nobody wants to hire a dead person."

This remark brought forth nods of the head and murmured comments of "That's right" and "You've got it."

The speaker was the unofficial leader of a loosely structured round-table discussion of the problems facing older women in the job market. I was one of the participants who agreed with her comment.

We were meeting informally--which we later acknowledged might have been a mistake. A professional counselor could have guided us more skillfully than we did ourselves. With professional aid, we might have reached the helpful stage of the discussion much sooner than we did.

The 14 women who gathered that sticky summer day in response to a notice on a supermarket bulletin board ranged from "just turned 40 yesterday" to "nearly 55." Some were employed in low-paying salaried positions, three were free-lance writers and editors, most were job-seekers.

Four of us were unmarried and solely dependent upon ourselves for support. The married women all declared their incomes were necessary for more than just "frills." Several said their husbands had been RIFfed recently and were looking for employment.

We were writers, secretaries, accountants, saleswomen and nurses. Our occupations varied, but our concerns were uniform. We felt our age bracket put us at an unfair disadvantage with employers.

For more than 45 minutes, we told our stories and expressed resentment against employment practices that we thought excluded us from fair competition in the job market.

One woman summarized what "they" (employers) look for in an applicant: "A trim, pretty 25-year-old with 30 years' working experience and extensive knowledge of computer-based technology." That brought a rueful chuckle as another member of the group added: "who is willing to work for $12,000 a year."

We all agreed with this assessment. Life, we assured one another, was definitely unfair to older women. There didn't seem to be much use in trying to change the system, either, because we ourselves had no "clout."

My main purpose in attending that meeting had been to have my spirits lifted by a positive exchange of ideas and experiences with members of my peer group. I was frankly disappointed. Listening to them made me realize that our situation was more hopeless than I had believed.

There didn't seem to be much point in spending the day listening to tales of woe more discouraging than my own, from women I had not known before and had little desire to know better. I started gathering my notebook to go home when something about the group struck a familiar chord.

I had been there before, I realized, but in another time frame. I looked at those women with drooping shoulders, pained eyes and turned-down mouths and relived scenes from my childhood in a small southern city.

"Older" women were everywhere around me then. They spoke endlessly to one another about unfulfilled ambitions and opportunities that never came to be. Their shoulders drooped, their eyes were dim and their mouths turned down at the corners. They said they had once wanted to sing with an opera company, train circus horses, join the Army, become forest rangers or bank presidents or something that never came to be. Instead, they spent their lives as housewives, office clerks or salesgirls. Their dreams withered and died and their youth died, too.

They usually ignored my presence, but occasionally when I asked, "What happened when you tried to . . ." they interrupted with bitter, sage words. "Child, there wasn't any use in trying. Nobody is going to give you a chance. You may as well learn that now. You can dream all you want with your nose stuck in a book, but you'll have to find out for yourself that life isn't fair for women, and it never will be."

I listened to their stories, but never brought myself to accept their statement that there wasn't any use trying. As both girl and woman I tried everything I thought I wanted to do. Sometimes I succeeded in my goal and sometimes not, but I always tried--until recently . . .

That's why the scene of discouraged women lamenting their lot in life was suddenly familiar. I had become one of them.

Abruptly, I stood up and said in a too-loud vice, "Maybe we're partially right. Maybe life isn't fair for older women. But it isn't fair for younger women either. It isn't really fair for anyone. Maybe our trouble is that we just aren't trying hard enough."

They didn't let me finish before their angry words flew around my head. As one, they rose against me, detailing just how hard they had tried to find good jobs.

They spoke of their carefully worded letters to blind-box newspaper ads. Their letters were not acknowledged or answered. They told of interviews with personnel managers and employment agencies that yielded nothing more than a casual "thanks for stopping by," or of their responses to questions about "salary history" that brought incredulous smiles from the questioners or of interviews conducted by younger women--fresh-faced recent college grads--who spoke in the high-tech jargon of "input" and "program" and the like. Not trying, indeed, they told me, they were trying too hard.

Suddenly everyone was very quiet. I murmured my apology because I knew their words were true for all of us. We sat in embarrassed, angry silence. Someone said that maybe we were indeed trying too hard. We were trying to get jobs that no longer exist. We were trying to change a system instead of ourselves.

Hesitantly, then more confidently, we began to talk again and assess her statement. We stated what we thought our advantages were in the business community and what our liabilities were. We looked at one another critically as only strangers can and said what we thought should be changed in ourselves.

We concluded at the end of another hour that older women do have a tough time competing in the job market but that younger women also have their career problems and men certainly do, too. We drafted a loose set of guidelines but agreed that joining a professionally organized seminar would be much more beneficial.

Our guidelines are good ones. They aren't firm, fast rules and they don't guarantee success. Following these guidelines is better than not trying at all. It's better than assuming that we don't have a chance--that our dreams should die as those women's from my childhood did.

When I told some of the group members as we parted about my sense of de'ja vu in relating our stituations to those of yesterday's southern women, they saw no resemblance at all. I hope they're right.