“I don’t believe one grows older. I think that what happens early on in life is that at a certain age one stands still and stagnates.” – T.S. Eliot
More than a few organizations are confronting volunteer and job applicants with decades of wisdom and nowhere to put it. They worry that highly enthusiastic boomers may lead them headlong into the 20th century. One nonprofit tech firm executive visited the local Small Business Administration, staffed by retired executives who told her in no uncertain terms that virtual employees couldn’t be adequately supervised because you couldn’t watch them. Another hired a boomer project manager who needed extra file cabinets for the print copies of all her e-mails. Aside from technology, many worry about our keeping pace and ability to learn new systems quickly. Stereotypes about our limitations frequently trump organizations’ need for smart and reliable professionals when opportunities to become personally acquainted are not available. So the push-me-pull-you escalates; “Contribute. Work—but not here.” Is the message boomers frequently confront.
Organizations that want us frequently lack the challenging tasks and flexibility that we envision. Despite more than 10 years of discussion, community organizations still believe they can use retired CEO’s to stuff envelopes, and push library carts. Individualized work plans for volunteers or flexible schedules for part-time employees are deemed too labor intensive for our lean and mean culture. The perceived mismatch between available person-power, skills and societal needs persists. As long as elders appear to offer no edge, no advantage, institutions have no reason to dig deeper to accommodate us.
“The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything: the young know everything. — Oscar Wilde
How did we come to this? In my career, I’ve learned that whenever we create divisions, some group falls into the crevasse and we all hover shakily at the fault line.
When we were young, we exalted the beauty, the cleverness and the superiority of our youth. We touted distrust of anyone over 30. We created the culture that sucked young people into the economy and shoveled out the old. We were at the forefront of a generation that advocated that respect for elders was passé. Irrelevant. We revved up success and achievement. We broke with tradition. We were the generation of “the times they are a changin’”. And now, we’re having trouble finding places to contribute to the new order. Surprise!
We’re unwilling to see ourselves as the old guard. We reject the label “senior.” We’re whitening our teeth, botoxing our wrinkles, boflexing our weary bodies and scurrying into as many social media networks as our kids can set up for us with the hope that we can mainstream with the young—or at least the unclassified middle—for a while longer. The deal we make with the devil is as old as the portrait in Dorian Grey’s attic. If we can avoid the label of “old,” we won’t claim our roles as elders. It’s a role that’s devalued, after all. We should know—we devalued it.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the young people who resist supporting us for the next 30 years of their lives don’t see any benefit to derive from the burden. As things stand, there is none. What the next generation sees is oldsters who over-spend, over-use, and over-extend to satisfy our sense of entitlement. In large part, they don’t see the ways in which we give back –or the potential for us to contribute powerfully to a wide variety of enterprises. We gave them no example of respect for the generation that came before us. Our parents migrated to Florida and Arizona and lived out their lives in segregated communities. We cleared them out of progress’ path. With few exceptions, we didn’t mine their experience to create the future. Families were dispersed. Our children didn’t see a positive role for elders in their personal lives and seldom had mentors in their work lives.
In US culture, ageism is one of the discriminations we still tacitly permit. We create performance measures and budget realignments that allow us to say our oldest (and most highly paid) employees are less valuable than their younger (cheaper) colleagues. The average number of age discrimination complaints filed with EEO has burgeoned to 23,541 – a 26% increase between 2008-2010, when compared with 2005-2007. And incidentally it is “we” who do this to “us”. In most US industry, boomers still hold key leadership positions. We could save each other, but we can’t risk reminding the young that we’re part of the same generation, so we turn our heads while members of our cohort are shown the door.
Reviewing this sorry tale, recalled to me “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The metaphor is simple and apt. Initially, an albatross that followed a ship was good luck. As societies that honor and make meaningful roles for elders have always believed, there are blessings in multi-generational life. We have played a significant role in killing the albatross by segregating our own elders and devaluing their contribution. We created this discrediting societal norm which is now threatening our own viability. The curse that comes from killing the albatross is felt by the whole crew of the ship just as the enormous financial burden is shouldered by the next generation in meeting the needs of the boomers. The mariner wore the albatross around his neck until death as a reminder of the harm his actions had caused. We are the albatross society will have to carry because we have wasted our elders, and we are the mariner who will drag around this useless weight because we won’t assume the elder’s role that we left in tatters.
“We have before us breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.” – John Gardner
Organizations’ and businesses’ reluctance to extend our useful roles in innovative ways coupled with our ambivalence about embracing new life purposes has brought us to what the media call “boomergeddon”. The good news is the next chapter is still to be written. The declining birth rate may force US businesses and nonprofits to seek out older workers to fill their vacancies. But we can’t wait for that. Many boomers are still debating their encore careers second chapter activities. Everyone will gain by us stepping up.