A Well-Educated Friend of Mine with Three Advanced Degrees
Can Say “I’m Unemployed” In Six Languages
Middle-aged and gainfully unemployed; sound vaguely familiar? If you fit the bill, are you busy reinventing yourself? If you aren’t, chances are you should be. At least that is what the experts keep advising those of us at mid-life who wish to remain productive and somehow keep a roof over our heads. Bear in mind- reinventing oneself after age 50 is not the same as doing so after 40. Google lists reams of sites devoted to this very distinction – when it comes to employment, “50” is definitely not the new “40.” According to a whole slew of 30-something year old business wizards, presumably the same ones who determined that we were all expendable in the first place, we should be happy that we have been given a golden opportunity to recreate ourselves. What exactly it is that we are supposed to be creating is still a mystery to me; apparently, it’s right there staring at us – it just requires a bit of prodding.
Not too long ago I watched a panel discussion on the Bloomberg Business Station in which a group of prominent CEOs explained to us peons that with life-expectancy on the steady rise, many of us should expect to work well into our seventies. That’s a good one. I’d love to see how many fifty year olds these captains of industry keep on their payroll, let alone those who are approaching seventy. Are there really enough security guard openings to go around for all of us?
The unnamed author of an article in Forbes (Aug. 11, 2005) suggests that the main obstacle to employing us mid-lifers is not age but money – older employees are too expensive to sustain. In the same breath, he argues that “bosses shouldn’t favor hot shots, because they may leave, while ignoring veteran employees and their bedrock performance.” Maybe I am a bit prejudiced, but I am inclined to think that years of hard- earned experience should be worth a few bucks to the wellbeing of any enterprise. At camp this past summer, seven of the nine senior positions in the kitchen were held by workers 55 years of age and older – the most senior being 83, and he still makes a very mean cholent. Together we served 1400 people three times a day and not one meal was ever late getting out of the kitchen. Somehow, this group of geezers managed to unload trucks, stock fridges and freezers, chop, dice, roll out, sauté and flambé without missing a beat. How did our younger more virile assistants fare? Let’s just say that “staying power” was not the strongest suit for many of them – they preferred the glamour minus the daily grind.
According to Mishnah 21 of Ethics of the Fathers, “thirty years is for strength, forty years for understanding, and fifty years for counsel…” My strength and my stamina may not be what they once were, but heck, understanding and counsel are not a bad combination. In the past, I have worked at two different companies where the owners, both father and son, shared the same office. It was clear that one day the reigns of power would be handed over to the son, but the transition would be conducted under the guiding hand of the senior generation. What a radical concept – youth and age complementing each other. George Burns was famously quoted as saying that “retirement at sixty-five is ridiculous. When I was sixty-five I still had pimples.” I don’t want to work forever; I just don’t want to be told when I should stop.
Years ago when I worked in publishing the senior editors were exactly that – seniors. Their expertise and encyclopedic knowledge were considered valued assets. Today’s editors are very often prized for their speed – the faster they can deliver the goods the quicker their work can hit the Net. I am all for progress, but I still cherish tradition. Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I for one am not ready to roll over.
This is a subject that few want to discuss. Good that you are airing the topic and also facing the various challenges and inconsistencies in today’s business world. Keep writing.