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.


  1. I am waiting for the day when someone can sue - and win - over the phrase 'digital native.' It's age discrimination pure and simple.

    If you are over 35 (you don't even have to be 50), how many different computer systems and various other systems have you learned in your life? Yet older workers are branded as being unable to roll with the times. If that were true, we'd all still be on typewriter.

    Willingness to learn and change is a personality trait, not an age trait.

    Besides my rant, good post. A work place with a variety of ages is beneficial to everyone. Particularly the company.

  2. Prince is NOT 54. I refuse to believe that.

    This is a great post. I enjoy working with coworkers of all ages. For the first time in my career, my manager is younger than I am (only by a year, but still). I reluctantly admit to that bothering me a teensy bit.