When is a Boomer Like an Albatross-3

“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.

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When is a Boomer Like an Albatross -2

OK –See I’m bad at this part 1 and 2 stuff-I’ve gotten busy with my workshop and forgot to post the rest of my essay–here’s a few more bites!!

“For the unlearned, old age is winter;
for the learned it is the season of the harvest.”

The Talmud

Not all of us leave the workplace
licking our wounds.  Many of us have played the game long and hard with the tacit understanding that if we did it all right, the pay-off was we could STOP.   We have many avocations that we have been looking forward to pursuing.  For awhile, we may be content in the whirl of long-delayed pleasures and deferred family needs we now have time to fulfill.  Some Boomers find, however, that the novelty of an open schedule and pleasurable activities— like a steady diet of nothing but ice cream – becomes boring.  We become nostalgic for the social interaction of our working lives.  We miss being depended upon and recognized for our talent.  We become acutely aware that our e-mail boxes are empty and our phones ring less frequently. While we may not miss our work, we miss our roles.

Boomers came of age amidst the idealistic calls for change, revolution, equality, social justice.  There may be issues we’ve spent a career or a lifetime advocating and supporting.  Or our careers may have left us passive bystanders to our most  passionate causes.  Retirement can re-kindle old passions.  We tentatively scan the volunteeropportunities available.  We might even glance at the want ads.  Maybe now’s the time we can create change, leave our mark, we think.  In our hearts, there is the little voice that nibbles away at our idealism: “did I work long and hard to ultimately be saddled with time and energy commitments again?”  Our ambivalence may end our quest.

We start our retirement journey with mixed emotions about our identities and what we have to offer, some of us discouraged, others supremely confident.  Some of us are content to withdraw.  Others seek paid or volunteer work that has meaning; that feeds our passion to make a difference, but doesn’t consume all of our time.  We don’t want the worry and responsibility we once had, but we want assignments that use our unique skills.  If we imagined we’d be welcomed with open arms by the community loathe to support us, we may have a rude awakening.

When is a Boomer like an Albatross?

I have been stewing with some thoughts and observations about being a “boomer” for months now–finally found an essay contest to help me focus my thoughts–it’s a little long, so I’ll share it in sections.  Wonder if others feel this way too–

Isn’t it funny how we don’t call ourselves “Boomers” but everyone else puts us in that slot? Actually, to read about us in the media, I increasingly feel that I’m an albatross. Whether we’re a curse or blessing depends, as our community organizer heroes used to say, on “who is asked what by whom”.

To the next generation, we are the economic albatross; the weight they carry, trying to meet the promises government made to seniors in radically different times. Living longer, we ravage the Social Security system, leaving our children to fend for themselves with a murky future dependent upon their private investments. Actuaries predict our health care needs will bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid, leaving onerous specters of an aged apocalypse. The refrain we hear from the doomsday chorus: “they didn’t save enough. They expect the government to cover for their lack of planning.” Many see us as the antithesis of our parents, “The Greatest Generation,” whose stolid frugality and self-sacrifice paved the way for our feelings of entitlement. Some in the media have even labeled us the “Greedy Generation”.

Whether or not we feel especially greedy, we do threaten to consume the lion’s share of available resources. According to the US Census, our over-65 population will grow from 35 million now to 70 million between 2020 and 2030. Based on actuarial tables, for those individuals who live to age 65, more than half, 53%, of single females and 41% of single males will still be alive at age 85. For married couples, 72% will have at least one spouse alive at age 85. If 75% percent of workers file for Social Security at 65, many of us will need resources for 20 years of retirement. How can any culture afford to support 21% of its adult population for 20 years?

Clinicians have had to redefine categories of aging: the young-old (65-74), the old-old (75-84) and the oldest-old (85+). Although this redefinition is two decades old, we have been slow to re-define roles for ourselves for these stages of life. Yet, clearly the old roles either “working” or “retired”, don’t serve us well. The lack of defined usefulness to society that comes with the “retirement” mantle creates a schism between us and younger generations.

The financial experts’ battle cry “Work longer, retire later” is hard to hear. The current system is set up to let us go and many of us are more than ready to leave.  In past generations, elders were a blessing to their societies.  How do we again become a blessing to our society?