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Reflections as an Older Worker

By David Hugh Smith

An old friend was telling me about her experiences working at Target. To put this in context, this woman is one of the most competent people I know, and had she instead been a top manager at Target headquarters I have no doubt she’d be doing a superlative job enabling the company to overtake Walmart.
But she’s an “older worker.” And she’s also had more than her share of family problems that have pummeled her professional trajectory.

“At Target I worked with people from all walks of life, some from the banking industry, recent graduates who never found jobs after college, people who stepped out of careers even for a few months to care for aging parents but were never accepted back in,” my friend told me.

So why are some skilled, well-educated, and worthy workers stocking shelves at Stop & Shop if that’s not what they want to be doing? Why are they, as is sometimes the case, doing nothing but working themselves into a frenzy trying to organize a really good job for themselves – one they see as being a natural step of progress from their previous good job?

Too much experience

Some unemployed or underemployed workers may even see today’s low unemployment rate as being a further rebuke to their efforts to get back their old job, or something like it. Of course this unemployment rate doesn’t fully factor in people who have given up looking, and people who work part-time driving for Uber but would prefer to return to a full-time office job.

Of course there’s the Great Recession, which seemed to knock off track many older workers, even those with the finest qualifications and best conceivable work attitudes. Another challenge: a changing and increasingly high-tech world has made many jobs “redundant.”

Based on empirical observation, it appears younger workers had an easier time getting back on track after the Great Recession. And that suggests that ageism – the desire by companies to hire younger staff – also is a problem.
Ellen Ruppel Shell, who wrote the recently published book The Job: Work and Its Future in a time of Radical Change, discussed one problem older workers have getting reemployed in a recent interview I had with her. She calls it the problem of being “the other.” Managers, she says, like to hire people like themselves. So a 35-year-old department manager might not see a woman old enough to be his mom as being a good choice for a staff opening.

A new beginning

As my friend and I were reminiscing about having once had our own beautiful offices at major Back-Bay Boston companies, it occurred to me there were important merits to our new professional lives doing customer service. (Both this friend and I now greet visitors at a Boston tourist attraction.)

To back up, Ellen suggests workers who haven’t been successful finding a job reexamine their lives and “what gives (them) value.” To put my own spin on this, a frustrated accountant who can’t get a number-crunching job might enjoy working in a flower shop. An investment analyst who can’t get work making wealthy people wealthier might love to guide Boston visitors on Duck Tours. And these might be jobs for which they can get hired!

While my beautiful office of 25-years-ago, complete with generous desk area, plenty of space for personal items, and my own meeting area with a table and chairs has transformed into my being at a customer-service desk, with a locker for my stuff in a dingy basement, this very well could be the best place for me right now.

As Shell said in her interview, workers may need to rethink what gives meaning to their lives. “If they are not able to find the kind of job they used to have, and they’ve been trying for years to do that, they have to step back and rethink their life strategy rather than fine-tune their job-seeking strategy.”

Early in my career I worked shoulder to shoulder with top officers at a major financial-services company. And I produced reports read by tens of thousands. As a sometimes journalist, hundreds of thousands of people would read what I’d written. That was my way of helping people, as a worker.

Today, I’m directly helping people. People come to me in need of help and I help them. I have resources at hand. My words are not published – they resound directly into the ears of someone from Ohio or Singapore who needs me to show them how to best enjoy their visit. Instead of readers spread throughout the United States and Canada with whom I have no contact, I see and talk directly with the people with whom I’m sharing ideas. They are standing right in front of me.

In terms of personal development, I am challenged to express myself clearly toward people of many different backgrounds – and sometimes to call on my meager knowledge of German and French. I need to exercise new, higher levels of patience and kindness. Toward the end of a long day of helping people I am challenged to draw on a deepening reservoir of goodness in order not to weary of answering questions. Another quality I’m learning: humility. I’m not corporate-communications Dave. I’m customer-service Dave, whose job is to help people in a way that requires a high level of commitment to compassionate interaction.

Meanwhile, I am pushed not to judge based on appearance. Everyone I deal with deserves to be helped, no matter how they look. I can’t assume someone with spiky orange hair who initially appears to be unfriendly won’t be the most gracious and appreciative and intelligent visitor to drop by that day – and experience has proven this to be the case. I feel I’m being forced to be a better person because I’m working to stop assuming anything based on: age, race, gender or even…personal hygiene.

Perhaps the best part of this job: I love the people with whom I work. Meanwhile, because this position doesn’t require a total time commitment, I also can enjoy other “gigs” – like serving as editor for the Professional Development Collaborative, and writing movie scripts I dream of selling to Hollywood.

At some point I may need to score a better-paid position. My son soon will be entering college. But right now I am very grateful I have this opportunity to do something entirely different, and I see in my experience the possibility that others – other “older workers” like myself – could benefit from a “low-level,” outside-the-box job.

Yes, it’s true many of us may feel the pressure to earn more. But it is far better to be earning, say, $25,000 a year, and perhaps enjoying benefits, than earning nothing. And an outside-the-box job you enjoy – say, for example, assisting an elderly man who needs help navigating day-to-day activities, could lead to a job you deeply love – like enabling groups of seniors to live independently.



Ellen Ruppel Shell shares ideas about making work better

Last issue I shared some of what I learned during my interview with Ellen Ruppel Shell. I’d like to return to this interview and share more.

“The last section of (my book The Job) is all about positive stuff,” Ellen said. “I totally believe we can create good work for everybody. There is no shortage of good work. We have to take control. We can’t just sort of sit back and be pushed by technology or by vested interests.

“We’re going to have to decide what we’re going to do with that technology. How we’re going to apply it.”
The Job discusses the good things Ellen found out about jobs in Finland – how that country thoughtfully engineers its work force. It also discusses the advantages of employee ownership of businesses. And it talks about restoring manufacturing as a source of jobs, and she gives examples of where this has been done here in the US. In her book she says: “The most compelling manufacturing problem . . . is not to train more humans to manufacture stuff even more cheaply…The most compelling challenge is to restart the ‘virtuous cycle’ by which fairly paid workers produce quality goods at a price within reach of enough of us to stimulate the demand that creates more work worth doing.”
About Ellen’s trip to Finland: “While I was there I went out to dinner. The guy who was serving me spoke perfect English. He was terrific. I mentioned what great service I was getting (to the friend treating me) and he commented ‘of course they are great. They are trained.’

“This is a good job in Finland. And it’s fairly paid. There’s no reason why jobs like this are bad jobs.

“There are all kinds of things we could do as a country making work our priority. Innovating to create good work. . . . We need to engineer good work.

“We should (ask) what is our reality. What do we want? And go for it.”

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