Aging at Work

New Job, New Challenges

I started a new job in a new home at the tender age of 65.  The office I was about to occupy was empty except for a telephone.  I patiently waited as the van with my new, used furniture arrived. The affable district employee whose job it was to move furniture from site to site, greeted me with a quizzical look. “You changing offices?” “No,” I replied, “I’m a new employee and the office assigned to me has no furniture.”  He looked baffled. “Why aren’t you home playing with the grandkids?” he asked.

That was my first blatant ageist comment. Sure, I had been denied jobs because of my age but I had never been confronted by someone as uncensored as this man.  No shrinking violet, I told him how offended I was by his ageist comment.  Luckily for him, he realized his error and apologized. We had a brief conversation about sensitivity training; he shared he had been to sex discrimination training.  I asked about age discrimination training; he shrugged, never heard of it.

I relayed this incident to my supervisors and human resources specialist.  My supervisors were empathic, clucking their tongues and declaring how wrong the comment was on so many levels. The Human Resources Guy shook his head: you know how these folks moving furniture can be. Nothing more was done.

The Next Frontier

Decades ago reports of sexist or racist comments were treated similarly.  Boys will be boys, rednecks will be rednecks, just ignore and power through.  Today reports of such behaviors are dealt with more finesse by most organizations.  Racist comments are rarely tolerated; sexist comments are often investigated.  Sometimes no action results after the investigations; other times there’s a slap on the wrist, occasionally the offender is punished in some way.

Let’s face it: workplace conditions for minorities, women, gay people and the disabled have improved (although not nearly enough) but it is still socially acceptable to express prejudice against older people. (Just take a stroll down the birthday greeting card aisle if you doubt this.)

Ageism is the new frontier in offending people at work.  Depending on where you work (geographically, culturally), you may not experience blatant ageism.  If you hang in at work long enough, however, you’re sure to receive slights, from something as nonconsequential as being excluded from social outings to being overlooked for promotions.

Growth Opportunity

Whether you’re 50, 60 or 70, you may need some strategies for coping with ageism at work or in everyday life.  For many years, I was a closet “old” person; I could pass for 10 years younger than my age. I worked very hard at this.  As I told a friend recently, currently passing for someone in her late fifties, gives me no big advantage.  Owning one’s age is touted as an important first step in combatting ageism. 

I have found that having friends that span four decades keeps things in perspective.  Having younger friends helps with keeping current with trends, technology and even lingo.  My older friends provide me inspiration and touchstones.

Making jokes about aging or blaming shortcomings on aging should be avoided.  Both activities are very annoying. I would recommend that we all eighty-six expressions like: I’m having a senior moment.  Being forgetful can occur at any age for any number of reasons. 

Perhaps aging is an opportunity to practice mindfulness: to focus on one activity at a time, to get better organized, to have a designated place for one’s possessions (glasses, keys, etc.) and have fewer of them. Women’s rights activist and writer, Betty Friedan once said: Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.