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?

Getting to the Next Chapter —

Turning Down the Heat

It’s funny how fine-tuning the smallest routines in my new life brings insights. Maybe you’ve discovered this too? After several months of re-patterning when and where I pray and journal in the mornings, I’ve figured out I prefer the kitchen (until it’s warm enough to return to the porch). I harbor an image of making my French-press coffee and then praying and journaling with a hot cup of joe steaming next to me. But here’s the reality. When I’m really praying and journaling with focus, the coffee sits untouched and gets cold. Can’t deal with my first cup of the day being reheated! The morning escapes entirely when I don’t even start the coffee until I finish my morning pages, but if I start the water when I sit down to pray, the whistling kettle distracts me. I know how dumb this will sound to many of you smart people but I just figured out my stove will boil water even if I don’t set it on HIGH. It can take 30 minutes to boil water if I set it on low! Who knew?
Speed has always been the looming directive in my life—and productivity matters, especially now when I’m bombarded by messages about entertaining myself and being self-indulgent because I’ve earned it. Resisting these “raisons d’etre” in favor of shaping a new and meaningful career for myself has made me crabby and impatient. Holding onto rigid ideas about time and timing closes me off from the things that can make this new life richer and more satisfying.
Two ideas that converged with my singing kettle today are: reaching out to one or two people each day via phone or e-mail is the antidote to the isolation of working at home. Connections are part of the life I haven’t had enough time for—what am I doing researching and writing at the computer 6 hours a day—and no wonder I have to force myself to do it!! I read an interview with Steve Martin, whose new book was recently released. He mentioned that after 2-3 hours of writing a day, he needs to get out. Wow. It reminded me that Colleen Mc Cullough wrote Thorn Birds in short sessions before she went to work each day. How did I forget that?
What both of these bring me back to is boiling water slowly. Rather than re-create the fast, pressurized environment of my last careers, maybe I can create a work environment that allows time for friends, family and fruitful products. Turning down the heat may be an important concept to apply to more than coffee.
What little changes have you made that reflect bigger insights in your new life?
Have you found specific ways to turn down the heat or let water boil slowly?

Sandwich, anyone?

Just came back from visiting my grandbabies who live way too far away.  They’re 1 year old twins now and I get to see them about 4-5 times a year.  While I always stay for about a week, it takes 4-5 days for them to warm up to me enough that we can really play and snuggle.  Holding their hands for patty-cake was a biggy this visit.   I understand but it’s still hard.  Our daughter would love us to be closer.  While at times that sounds great to me, most of the time, I know we each need our friends, our activities, our communities and they happen to be 1000 miles apart.

We visited with my local daughter and her husband over the weekend.  She lives an hour away and I probably see her once a month.  I try to be considerate of them, and not demand a lot of their time.  When we were young, our folks were all nearby but we yearned for time with our friends; our parents were obligations, to an extent, even though we had good relationships with them.  Time is tight when you’re 26!

So we each make our way, and try to make our time together happy and rich and emphasize as we did when we were raising them that it’s quality, not quantity that matters.

We bobble along this way  until we can see over the horizon.  My dad is 92 and we’re moving him from his home in FL to a senior community in MD to be closer to us.  He and my stepmom moved there 30 years ago, intent upon living their lives with their friends, in their communitiy focusing on the activities and lifestyle Florida could offer them.  We saw each other once or twice a year.  The kids grew up knowing that Christmas vacation always began with 2 days in the car.  We made memories when we visited.  We talked late into the night.  We also suffered through a lot of Vaughn Monroe records.  It was quality not quantity of time that mattered.

Now he’s alone and I really want Dad back.  His friends have died or moved away.  He has fewer outside interests.  He’s amenable to being here instead of there and  I’m regretting that it’s taken so long to convince him to come.  Now the emphasis is on quantity of time.  Looking back, I realize it all has quality!

How does this track with career transition?  I think relationships hold a bigger place in our heads and hearts as we get older.  So we balance the scales differently than we did when we were younger and the weight of many decisions fell on the side of career advancement. I’ve always read that being the sandwich generation meant being pulled in too many directions, maybe the sides of the sandwich are the buffers that prevent me from taking the inevitable ups and downs of career change too seriously.  Maybe they give me a perspective I wouldn’t have if I only interacted with other seasoned professionals like myself.   I need to remember I was transitioning out of  chaos and busyness that I disliked.  I need to hold onto the value of patty-cake and listening to Vaughn Monroe along the way.

next chapter

After coaching other people on making transitions for the past 4 years, I’m ready to take the next step myself. I’ve had one foot in and one foot out for a year and a half now; coaching one day and a couple of evenings each week. Many of you who are hard-core dual career folks know the drill; using lunchtimes to confirm appointments, weekends to update the e-zine, re-arranging things constantly, so that it all fits.

Then, as I moved into this year, complete with immobilizing snow storms, the other shoe dropped. I felt the itch to write again. I started and was lucky enough to have my first on-line article published by More magazine. It made me bold. I approached a friend and we began writing a play. Writing – being a writer – changed my focus. And coaching clients were calling at the same time! I think when we are on the right path, God clears the brush. I realized writing and coaching are two vital pieces to the portfolio life I wanted to live. They are like the Technicolor scenes in Wizard of Oz, and my job…well it was definitely shades of grey by comparison. It was time to take the leap!

So…I’ve resigned from my consulting job, effective mid-September. I’ve been very open about what my next chapter includes. Now here’s the freaky part. Despite the fact that I intend to really WORK as a coach and writer, some folks are congratulating me on my “retirement”! I can’t even find words for how jarring that has been! I looked it up—“retirement” means: “giving up work, withdrawal from business or public life, retreat, sequestration.” Please note it’s not folks who are a lot younger who seem to need to put me in that box. It’s folks who are themselves over 55. Do we really NOT believe we have the right and capacity to do challenging, exciting, fulfilling things after 55? I can’t help but wonder how many of us are mired in this internalized oppression. No doubt, our youth-mesmerized culture will challenge us to prove we bring something unique to whatever new career or creative endeavor we choose, but we won’t overcome that challenge unless WE believe to the tips of our toes that we do!
My intent, at this point is to share some insights about my journey through this transition—and I’d love to hear yours.

What are some of the insidious ways your dreams for a next chapter get undercut?
Who has been supportive as you’ve tried to transition to your next chapter?

living in your own little Idaho

I’ve been looking for opportunities to make a difference this morning. Pretending (or not) that there are great opportunites out there and I just need to find them. What I’m struck by is how boring websites and facebook pages for nonprofits truly are–I don’t mean the BigGuys with their direct streaming video and thousands of fans and twitter followers–I mean the local organizations that might really need your or my talents–where they really might make a huge difference! Now don’t get me wrong– they’re perfectly competent; they describe mission and services and opportunities to volunteer and donate,but they’re BORING. There’s nothing that compels me to act. And the bigger problem is they’re written for other nonprofit people, so there’s that capable administrative insider code going on, that frankly, I don’t need to learn for our first “date”. I wonder how many of these groups track who uses their webside and how. I wonder how many track outcomes. Now there’s a task!