A recent news story, “[For the Unemployed Over 50, Fears of Never Working Again],” hit home. We all have friends “over 50” who have lost jobs for any number of reasons who now, because of a recession economy’s toll on the job market, cannot find work. For some, it is that they cannot find “meaningful” work; for others, there is no “comparable” work; still others can’t find anything, or anyone who values their particular sets of skills and experience, much less their willingness -- nay, their sometimes desperate need -- to work.
The words in the article that I found most chilling, however, were these: “[some of the accidentally unemployed] are starting to worry that they may be discarded from the work force -- forever” and a reference to “people who have been cast adrift.”
This is the real fear: that, by virtue of age and this consequential loss of economic power, we have become invisible and irrelevant, that our working lives to date are counted as meaningless, and that the future we once imagined has been erased.
Initially, I viewed this new economic reality as painfully similar to the marketplace we first tried to enter in the late 1960s and 1970s where the men in charge of the world were loathe to share their economic power with -- gasp! -- educated, ambitious women. Our training for careers, particularly professional careers except for teaching and nursing, was deemed meaningless. It was difficult to imagine a productive future when you couldn’t even get a job, when one news director with whom I interviewed in 1970 pronounced a woman reporter “an unnecessary frill.”
“A job is more than a job, you know,” says one of the “accidentally unemployed.”
“It’s where you fit in society.” No kidding. And “frill” wasn’t exactly what I had in mind back then anymore than those over 50 looking for work today imagined being put out to pasture after all they’ve accomplished.
When I examined the advice currently being proffered to out-of-work baby boomers, it, too, held echoes of the past. Stay in circulation. Be actively engaged with the outside world. Network. Retool your skills. (One 1969 career advisor told my college classmates and me -- a week before graduation -- to learn to type! Today, she’d tell us to upgrade our computer skills.) Don’t get angry or depressed. Volunteer. Take that entry level position and work harder than anyone to show how valuable you can be. The problem with this, even though it might in fact have been practical then and might be equally practical now, is that it assumes we have no rightful place in the working world and must, therefore, create -- or re-create -- it. As a 20-something, I was willing to take that challenge and run with it. At 60, facing the deepest recession our cohort has ever known, I’m not sure I’m up for Yogi Berra’s deja vu all over again.
Then I read a number of the blog posts associated with this article, and realized there’s considerably more at stake this time around. What was once sexism and may now be ageism is currently tainted by some very real, very harsh antipathy toward men and women of our generation. For example: “I have no sympathy for cry baby boomers who had it way way better than any other generation, who are continuing to take it away from younger generations and who are so greedy that they refuse to retire. There won't be any jobs for anyone until they die.”
Ouch. Classism. Ageism. Generational warfare. The assumption there is not -- and may never be -- enough to go around. And some young snip who not only wants us put out to pasture, but buried in it!
I was someone who wouldn’t join AARP until my kids were all grown -- 25 and older -- because I didn’t want to risk siphoning off support for the children’s issues I considered paramount by demanding more for older folks. I’ve joined now, (chiefly for the age-related discounts), but that policy conflict endures; by pitting the needs of an aging population as they were defined in the 1930s against the education and health care needs of today’s children, we as a society foster this kind of generational warfare. And there is very little in our contemporary culture calling us to any common goal such as, say, the stabilization of this very rocky economy. There’s nothing, in fact, and no one calling us to rise above the fray for the sake of our collective future, young and old alike.
Could that be our role, as the older and wiser ones? Could we eschew the prevailing selfishness and greed, consider alternatives to the status quo, agree to pay our own ways a little longer, and lead by example? Might we contribute to this economy with our skills, experience and a generosity of spirit that, rather than merely extracting our fair share from it, expands it and creates more opportunity for men and women of all ages? I would think so.
I have always imagined, however, that such a “call” would come more elegantly -- from someone I respected and admired who would inspire me to be my better self. Instead, the “call” has come via the nastiness on the blogs and its vitriolic ageism. Rather than inspire me, it ticked me off. But I heard the call anyway. The question is: will I heed it? Will we be able to prove our worth in more imaginative humane ways?
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