Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Older worker"? Not sure how I became one, but here's what it feels like.

It struck me the other day during my performance review: I am an “older worker.”

My manager, in the midst of graciously complimenting an aspect of my performance, remarked offhandedly about the benefits wrought by experience in the workplace. (To be fair, she also discussed the great things younger workers bring to the table, but I focused in on the remarks that applied to me.) What she was basically saying was that it’s great to have a team comprised of employees who bring different strengths and experiences to the table, and I agree.

But it gave me pause to realize that I’m closer to retirement than nearly anyone else on my team. I’ve never “felt my age,” whatever that means, but the numbers don’t lie.

When I began my career, at 22, I was a quick study with a great foundation and the best boss a person could have asked for.  Bill was a few years my senior and was tough; remember that really scary teacher you had in grade school, the one who ended up pushing you to reach your full potential, then becoming your friend in adulthood when you finally realized how amazing she was?  That was Bill.  And because he focused more on being my mentor than my friend, he turned out a darned good reporter.

Because I tended to learn pretty quickly, I was able to participate in some pretty high-level assignments, and the phrase “does a great job for her age and experience” was bandied about every now and again.  I loved that I was holding my own against older reporters, covering and even breaking some stories across the state.  I loved working, and I loved that time in my life.

Then, of course, I grew older, and no longer was I anyone’s wunderkind. I took my career in a different direction, becoming a corporate communicator.  Since my 20s, I’ve worked for four companies, each progressively larger than the one before, and I’ve been surrounded at each by co-workers of all ages.

But depending on the company, the unspoken attitudes toward “workers of a certain age” has seemed to vary. One company was known for plying workers 55 and older with early-retirement packages that weren’t necessarily desired, but were too good to refuse. Another company seemed older-worker-friendly – it hired a pal of mine when she was in her late 50s – and yet when a gentleman I know there turned 50, he refused to tell anyone his age for fear it would impact others’ perceptions of him. 

I get that there are reasons companies like hiring younger workers; businesses have bottom lines to adhere to, and it simply costs less to hire younger workers – ones who are often just as competent as their older counterparts. And depending on a company's benefits package, it may cost more to insure us. So skewing its workforce toward the young end is a win-win for companies, right?

Not so fast.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the proportion of older workers – those 55 and older -- will increase steadily from 12 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2025. Why is that? Primarily because people are living longer and need the money. But it also seems that many of us continue to like working as much as we ever did, and we realize that in a lot of ways, it’s good for us.

And best of all, it’s good for our bosses.

As my manager mentioned, older workers bring invaluable skills to the table; we may not be “digital natives,” but most of us began using computers in college, so we’ve been tech-savvy for our entire adult lives.  And some may argue that because we haven’t had the lifetime benefit of computer-assisted communication, our interpersonal skills are stronger; before we learned to text, we learned to talk.  And unless we were Prince – who is 54 now, by the way – we wrote in complete sentences, without a symbol in sight: For me, “your” has never been, and never will be, represented with “ur.”

We arrived for our first job interviews with briefcases and, if we were female, wearing pantyhose and heels.  We all wore suits, and we hand-wrote thank-you notes to our interviewers.  We didn’t think in terms of “perks” a job could offer us; we sat down at our desks and tried really hard to contribute. 

As my dad was inclined to respond whenever I complained about a job, “Heh heh heh.  That’s why they call it ‘work.’” Older workers have grown up with the attitude, often driven into us by our Depression-era parents and grandparents, that a job is something to be thankful for.  That’s not to say countless people my age are not visionaries who have struck out on their own; I’m just saying that we learned to be thankful for the advantages extended to us by virtue of employment.  

That’s not to say that our ways remain the “best” ways. From my younger co-workers, I’ve learned working remotely, from the comfort of my kitchen table with my dog at my heels, can allow me to be every bit as productive – or more so – than I am when I’m in the office in heels. I’ve learned the best day is a jeans day – not because wearing denim really transforms anything, but because it has a way of encouraging folks to relax.

I’ve learned that generation that’s grown up with social media is a connected generation, and, Facebook and Twitter junkie that I am, I’ve learned that the keyboard is the great age-equalizer.  No one sees my gray roots when I tweet; all they see is that I’m commenting on and contributing to a big, vibrant world.

From me, I hope my younger co-workers have learned a thing or two as well.  Above all, I’m hoping they’ve learned to relax and realize that although that big project may have been derailed today, things won’t look nearly as bad next week. I hope they’ve learned that nothing can take the place of a solid communications foundation: If you’re articulate and can converse fluidly with the written word as well, others will regard you more highly in the workplace than if you don’t take spelling and grammar seriously.

I hope they’ve learned not to be afraid to speak up and offer an unproven idea; after all, the person who hired you likely did so because you have a good brain, and he or she wants to hear what you think.   I hope they’ve learned that even though casual dress is great, there is no reason – ever – to wear Budweiser t-shirts and flip-flops to the office, unless it’s a home office. (Sorry. Respect your employer. Period.)  

And I hope they’ve learned that caring about their co-workers – and allowing their co-workers to care about them back – is an important part of what makes a workplace cohesive and functional.

I took a business trip last week and met a woman who is a few years my senior. She’s a leader in the company and has, in addition to tremendous expertise, a head of silver hair. During a break in our meeting, I told her I admired her hair and asked how long ago she’d stopped coloring it.  “I’ve never colored it,” she responded.  “Why would I?”  It occurred to me then that in my jobs with previous employers, silver heads were few and fair between.

I saw a few more of them this morning as I walked to the cafeteria, and one more as I visited the guard desk to have my badge reset. Also today I heard co-workers talking about adult children and about grandchildren, and I witnessed such comments as, “I’m too old to drive in this snow.” And upon hearing that, workers of other ages laughed and agreed, and no one seemed to think a thing about what the older person said -- except that it’s not fun driving in snow, no matter how old you are.

It's a good time to be 50.  As I ease into "older workerhood" and am made to feel as valued as I feel at this moment, I’m very pleased to be where I am.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

After two decades, I still don't know how to parent. But tomorrow is a new day.

We all have parenting moments about which we're not proud.  I had one recently, and it's humbling in that I thought I had learned enough over the years that I'd know better.

Guess what.  I didn't.

Here's the story: Since she was little, my daughter has wanted to, as she put it at age 9, "own (her) own show choir."  Through a great deal of hard work over the years and a large number of opportunities given to her by some gracious people, she's been on her way to doing just that. (OK, not owning one, per se, but directing one.)

So when she called a couple of weeks ago and said she's delaying her plans so she can take another job, it was clear that I hadn't read Parenting for Dummies, because my reaction was 100 percent wrong. And the sad thing is, when you have one of those moments, there's no such thing as a do-over.

It's not as if Caroline has decided to delay her plans because she's going to work at Dunkin' Donuts or spend time "finding herself."  After she graduates from Drake in May, she's going to work for a national nonprofit as a leadership consultant, gaining and honing valuable skills as she travels across the country.

Of hundreds of applicants for the job, she was one of only 10 young women selected, so there was, and is, much to celebrate. She'll travel for a year, and when she returns, she'll apply for teaching jobs.

Great news, right?  Only I didn't celebrate.  I reacted as though she had hurt me personally. I was decidedly underwhelmed.  Every "Of course I'm proud of you" was followed by a "but." I threw up roadblocks and warned of dire scenarios.  By the end of the phone call -- one during which Caroline assumed she would receive her mother's unconditional support -- she was crying.

The whole time, I knew I was reacting badly.  But I couldn't stop myself.

Pathetically, I was making the decision all about me. As difficult as it is to admit this, I've enjoyed the music-related parts of Caroline's life as much as she has, or even more than she has.  You've seen hockey dads? Baseball dads?  For many years, I've been a Music Mom, and I guess I'd allowed myself to believe my daughter's accomplishments had somehow constituted a reflection of me.

Cognitively, of course, I've known that's not true; anyone who knows Caroline is well aware of her independence and drive. Our in-joke is that she can't just be a part of an organization; she has to run it.  Sure, I gave birth to her and made sure she was fed, clothed and sheltered, but everything else has been all her.

So when she began to accomplish things on her own, I probably allowed myself to become too wrapped up in them. Sure, they weren't about me -- but I had raised her, and involvement was one of the perks. And how great was it that she had decided to concentrate on music, one of my great loves?  When she decided she was going to become a music teacher, my joy could not have been more complete.

But then the other opportunity came along, and she decided to take it. And although I'd raised my children to make their own decisions, I found myself upset and confused.  "What do you mean you're going to switch gears, Caroline?" I asked. What I really meant was, "I've been counting on this. And it's clearly all about me."

It wasn't, of course.  But that's the way I reacted. And I'm ashamed.

Fortunately, it didn't take me long to realize how ridiculously I was behaving, and to tell my daughter how sorry I was for my lack of support.  She and her brother both have been blessed with a tendency toward graciousness, and she seems to have forgiven me. But like all those other crappy parenting moments we wish we could undo, this one will hang around.

Webster's defines humility as "the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance or rank." Could it really be that it's taken me 24 years of motherhood to realize that simply because I gave birth to two humans doesn't mean they are of me and about me?

When I was 21, I had my own dreams, and I was given the freedom to make my own mistakes and relish my own triumphs. My kids deserve the same opportunities.

As a part-apology and part-celebration, I gave Caroline a gift today: a charm for her Pandora bracelet. It's a tiny suitcase to represent the road she'll be taking for the next year, and I gave it happily and with no emotional strings attached.

What I really want that gift to say is, "Congratulations for refusing to listen to your mother, and choosing to live for yourself." She comes from a line of strong women; how silly of me to ever have expected anything else.

Bon voyage, Caroline.  I'll be here when you fall, and I'll be here when you triumph.  As always, my money is wholly on the latter.