Guest Blogger Ian Bertram: Preparing
Guest Blogger Ronni Prior: The Snowball Effect

Guest Blogger Mary Jamison: The Lessons Keep Coming

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.

Comments

Enjoyed your commentary Mary. Think there are a lot of shared feelings laced throughout.

I think that as actors on the stage of life we find ourselves “typecast” when we attain a certain aged look. It’s not the actually being old – it’s the looking old! In addition we are “profiled” which is to say that we, regardless of who we really are, become the accumulation of all the bad experiences people have had with old people. Even worse, that profiling becomes enhanced simply by rumor and statements grounded in the figment of the imagination of others.

A lot of us have never had to really deal with any measure of bias or prejudice in our lives until we reach the aged plateau. So it becomes quite the splash of cold water on our face and often difficult for many to deal with in a social and cultural atmosphere where they have always been warmly welcomed in the past.

I took a gardening course this winter and was the oldest one in the class. That made me feel a bit uncomfortable, as I was hesitant to ask questions or show any kind of knowledge- just like we were in school again. One time we had to choose a partner, and when I turned to the female on the right, she had already turned away. I kept going to the class, as I was learning some good stuff, but I felt alone in my senior square. One day after class, another student walked with me, and asked what I did in life. As soon as I told her I was a retired teacher, the air chilled. She, on the other hand was looking for a job. I guess me being, in her mind, at the end of my career world, I was of no use to her. This person had me categorized in a short walk to the subway. I could have started bragging about all the countries I've visited and still visit, all the degrees I hold, and the fact that I work part time at a university, but what would that give me? I can't even fully describe what I mean here, but you nailed the feeling totally. Lately, I find myself more in tune with the seniors I garden for, and with my family. I believe in doing my own thing, even if I'm alone doing it. Your post is excellent. High five from Montreal.

Mary, this is an excellent post that I can relate to so well.
doctafill-- I like to take classes and find myself alone most times. I’ll now think of it as sitting or standing in my “senior square” since that’s just what it feels like to me and know that I’m really not alone. Thanks.

Know these feelings well! Thanks for expressing them so succinctly! Keep taking those classes, tho'. Never know the friends you may make! Dee

Oh, we relate here too with G soon out there job hunting in his late 50's. Life is never boring.

It's all part of the adventure, Mary. I can identify with all you've written here. And I'm kinda tired of lessons in life.

When I was in my 50's and still working I experienced exactly the kind of thing you describe. Now in my later 70's I have crossed into a new world. I have become invisible.

My husband and I were persuaded to go briefly to a party down the street which was almost entirely kids in their 20's, with a few retarded 30's and 40's. Jerry said to me, "Let's go, I feel out of place." I replied, "I don't feel out of place, I feel like a fly on the wall." It was strange. People walked past and around us without speaking or making eye contact. We came and went without being seen. I guess gray hair makes one transparent.

Thanks, Mary, for the good writing and thinking. I love it that you don't get mad; you get pondering. And keep observing.

Your post is so right-on! I had a similar experience in my 50's in a new job at the same company. My questions about what work I'd be assigned were seen as "trying inappropriately to self-manage." I went from being the go-to person to being invisible.

Our local paper just published a letter from a young man who thought teachers over a certain age (50+)should retire and let the new graduates take over. The same paper, refers to persons over 60 involved in an accident as "elderly." It's hard work to change that insideous mindset and dangerous when it's your doctor who may not listen.

I think my experience as a black person all these decades (I'm 44) will help me as I grow older in terms of learning to deal with ageism. I am used to being thought of negatively, and of being invisible. Not by everyone of course, but by enough people over time to recognize it when it happens.

I came to peace with it a long time ago and never let it stop me from doing what I wanted. I have also learned not to "bitter out" about it and instead try to stay thankful for the life I have and look forward to each day's new adventures.

Lynn--I love your expression "bitter out". It is so desciptive of the way some choose to handle a disturbing situation. I'll remember it!

Alan G--Your observations and comparison of ageism with other forms of discrimination strike me as right on. You did well in recognizing the parallel, in my opinion.

Mary--Enjoyed your posting and agree with Sixty and Single in Seattle's observation.

It's also possible that you are working w a creepy boss and creepy coworkers. .

Invisible is not all bad...I see that so much of the younger society is silly...and the Me generation is still out there. I find folks of every age in activities we have in common...then there is no age present...just interest in results achieved...

I hear you! I recall returning to Univ. at age 40. Two other "older" students and I met there and discovered we each shared the same approach to talking in our classes filled with so many much younger classmates. We judiciously limited our verbal input even when we were chomping at the bit wanting to share the knowledge gained from our experience. "Less was more" so when we did briefly talk, everyone really listened. I'm sure the instructors appreciated our approach and I know the students did from talks we had with some after we got to know each other.

When I began my work experiences (like an internship) and my beginning jobs I was supervised and worked with professionals from various health care disciplines, all of whom were younger -- some much younger. I made it clear I respected their experience by asking questions and being careful about allowing my own perspective to be solicited. Once we all became comfortable with each other then expression could be much looser and spontaneous since our trust had been established. Somehow, the age difference has not presented itself as a problem.

Perhaps their are workplace environments that are very competitive unlike our mutually supportive team approach. Reads like you've got it figured out that an adjustment on your part may need to be, or has been made.

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