While I am away in New York City for a couple of weeks, a fantastic group of elderbloggers and elderblog readers agreed to fill in for me. Today it is Mary Jamison, who says, for the most part, I love my job: I get to talk to a lot of interesting people. I’m a lifelong Western New Yorker, a single woman, a 57-year-old homeowner, a newbie in the world of dog showing. I was shopping for a circular saw last night and I learned that hydrogen peroxide really does make a dog ralph up something he shouldn’t have eaten. Sometimes I think I’m too cynical, but I can still be dismayed - and surprised - when humans (including myself) behave badly.
Behavior that served me well in my career back in the day - when I was a skinny blonde with a clearly discernible waist and a cute butt - doesn't serve me at all in these post-menopause years.
I’m a talker - one of those people who is always eager to make suggestions and kick around ideas. Once upon a time, that meant I was one of the people tapped to do the presentations and handle the special projects. Not always, but more often than not, I was among those who survived the lay-off or who got the promotion. I was never tracking to be the Big Boss, but I was always a solid B performer. And when it came to promotions, people were encouraging and supportive.
Now? Not so much.
It took me a long time and a lot of soul-searching to figure out that, these days, people around me react to a different person than I experience myself to be.
When we’re enthusiastic and young, we get a lot of encouragement. After all, “participates in class” is considered a plus throughout most of our school lives. But it looks as if that tendency to jump right in becomes a liability as we get older.
Take, for example, the get-acquainted meeting with the new boss last year. I brought along a resume and told her I was eager to “take on new challenges.” Weeks later, I was stunned to learn that her reaction was negative. She’d somehow interpreted my desire to learn something new as dissatisfaction with my current job.
It could be that, in that case, I simply played my hand badly. But another possibility is that the rules have changed. Is it really strictly a coincidence that people’s reactions to me seemed to change just about the time I turned 50 - the time I started a new job?
I’ve begun to speculate that elders in the workplace are expected to behave differently than young people, different from even our younger selves. That means changing the habits of half a lifetime.
It’s tempting to rail against this. After all, why should this be so?
Shouldn’t ideas be based on their worth? Shouldn’t input be valued?
Shouldn’t ambition be encouraged?
Well, maybe. But the thing is, work is about getting paid. And insisting on fair play at work is risky business. For one thing, one person’s fair play is another person’s favoritism. For another thing, rocking the boat is seldom well received. And maybe the thinking is that if a person isn’t where she’d hoped to be at this stage of the game, she should just face the fact and let her skills and strength go unused.
With all this in mind, I’ve been paying attention to what people of all ages say about their older colleagues.
For example: One young colleague told me that she didn’t take part in a discussion between people because they were “older women.” She felt uncomfortable, disrespectful.
For example: during a training session, a young colleague turned away from her assigned older teammate to join a team made up of people her own age.
For example: one of the programmers posted an old Bloom County cartoon about how old people shouldn’t be allowed to use computers.
Some of this is ageism, pure and simple. Some of this may be related to authority issues with older people being seen as - or acting like - the parent or teacher, and the younger folks feeling like, or being treated as, children. Some of it might even be respect, although I’d find it more respectful to be challenged honestly than to be politely ignored by someone who disagrees with me.
I’m struggling to figure out how to fit better in this strange new world—made all the stranger because it looks just like the old one. And I’m trying to use the struggle as an opportunity for reflection and for growth and a chance to understand my own prejudices better.
Or, as the bumper sticker says, “Oh, no! Not another learning experience!”
EDITORIAL NOTE: While I am away, The Elder Storytelling Place is on hiatus. You can read past stories here. And if you are inclined, you could send in stories for publication when I return. All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.