Becoming Obsolete

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I have so many thoughts on this subject that I hardly know where to begin. Let’s try this: the closer I get to retirement, the more I want to feel like I’ve made a contribution to the place I’ve worked for the past twelve and a half years. However, since I haven’t actually retired yet, haven’t even given my notice, no one feels like they need to reassure me about this. Why would they? But as my attention starts slowly focusing outward on the big, wide world and less on my workday issues, I find my tolerance for day-to-day problems grows shorter and shorter and my self-worth as a team member becomes more and more fragile as I realize that I’ll be missed for about five minutes before everyone moves on. It’s disconcerting to feel my long-term contribution beginning to feel obsolete before I’ve even left. I want to have mattered and I’m afraid I won’t.

So here was the inciting incident that prompted this post and all my conflicted thoughts. One of my employees, a self-confident 30-something girl, came into the office where we share a space. I told her something that might affect her workday and she started to respond. As she spoke, I turned to my computer to start logging in and commented on the screen saver. With that, she stopped talking and proceeded to shove her things around on the desk. I thought perhaps something had happened the night before that had put her in a bad mood so I turned and said, “What’s wrong?”

She responded something to effect of, “I was trying to answer your question but this is a  pattern and so I’ll just sit here and let you talk.” She might as well have slapped me. What’s a pattern? I was a bit stunned and so it took me a second to narrow down the possibilities. I told her I was still hearing every word she said. Nevertheless, I sat back, gave her my full attention and asked her to please tell me what she had started to say. I guess the thing that confused the most then, and still does now, is that even when I’m not looking directly at her, I always engage in the conversation so I’m clearly hearing what she’s saying. So was this time a problem for some reason or was it always a problem? And if it was always a problem, I don’t understand why she didn’t address it sooner and in a different manner.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I recognize that it could be seen as a slight because it appeared she wasn’t getting my full attention. But the thing that bothers me the most is the level of disrespect for a supervisor that was displayed. Is that just old-school thinking on my part? Another reminder that I’m past my “use by” date? Is that a difference of the Baby Boomer generation and how we approach authority from her Millennial generation? I’ve had supervisors that I detested but I would never have dreamed of telling them what I thought they were doing that irritated me.

So yes, I read it as a subtle comment on my age and it hurt. She saw no reason whatsoever to show any respect to my position. It made me wonder if the young workers I think are enjoying my company actually tolerate rather than appreciate me.

So there you have the issues: ageism, generational ways of dealing with authority, unintended but subtle insults, and a clear lack of communication. In any case, she hit the mark she intended. I was wounded by the barb and it made me wonder if my contribution to the organization is obsolete.

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Crooked Career Path

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Approaching retirement, I look back at my career path and see a meandering, crooked line and I wonder about it sometimes. How many of those changes were my fault? How many were great opportunities? I’ve spent decades feeling guilty about some of the exits I had, wishing I’d been a bit more circumspect on the job. Then again, I recently put my career path within the parameters of an interesting study I read that described the expectations of the different generations and how their career paths were impacted by the common beliefs of the group they grew up in – Traditionalists (1900-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980) and Millennials (1977-1994).

I’m a Baby Boomer. Here’s how the study says I differ from my parent’s generation. Where they were influenced by parents who survived the Great Depression, who taught them to adhere to the rules and conform, and that you must respect authority and trust the government, I was influenced by the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution and the hippie movement and was taught that things were better for me than for them and that I could chase that great American dream and have anything I wanted. My “spend now, worry later” generation most definitely affected my money management lack of skills for decades and has resulted in not enough money saved up to be truly comfortable in my retirement. I didn’t actually start paying serious attention to budgeting and saving until I hit my 50s.

My parent’s values, which they valiantly tried to instill in me, included talks about being thankful for a job and taking whatever money I was offered and being grateful for it. That stuck with me and made it very difficult to discuss raises, and then when I didn’t get the raise I thought I deserved, it left me unhappy but unwilling to speak up.

Additionally, I saw that although my parent’s generation traditionally got a job and stayed in it until retirement, my generation saw employees getting fired from jobs they’d had for decades in favor of a younger group – and that was frightening. It meant that my generation (well okay, I won’t generalize) – it meant that I put in longer hours to show my dedication and was afraid of taking too much time off in case someone looked around one day and said, “Where the hell’s Lisa? She sure takes a lot of time off. If she doesn’t want to be here, then maybe we should get rid of her.” It’s a terrible thing to worry about your job every day.

Now some of that is my fault. I’m a bit of a nonconformist and have been known to stand up for my rights in rather juvenile ways. Take, for instance, the college summer job I got  working the switchboard at a local department store. The fashion at the time was to wear tops that were cut in at the shoulders all the way to the collar and since those were the burn-your-bra days, no one wore a bra with those tops. I didn’t think it really mattered because the switchboard crew were tucked away in a corner of the building and didn’t interact much with other employees. Nevertheless, a zealous manager called me aside one day to tell me it was improper to come to work without a bra and that one would be required in the future. So what did I do? I showed up the next day with a bra under a similarly sculptured top. I presented quite a look  with the bra straps on clear display on my bare shoulders. My rationale was that I was just following directions but could I have chosen a different top? Of course!

I also look back at my career moves and see that the different mindsets of the generations also played into my comfort level, influencing my anarchism. At first, the differences stemmed from the fact that a free-thinking Baby Boomer was working for a Traditionalist who valued conformity and respect for authority (whether or not that authority figure deserved any respect for the way he/she treated the employees). And then as I got older, I worked for Generation Xers, the ones who tried to balance work and outside life, who looked at work as “just a job” and were viewed by me as slackers. If I could stay late to finish a project, so could they, right?

I’m not really sure if a “big picture” view of the effects of generational changes at work would’ve altered my approach, but it might’ve. If nothing else, it might’ve helped me to see that the workplace was in a state of flux, moving from lifelong careers (which my parents preached was the ultimate goal) to a constantly moving target of fitting in and finding satisfaction and discovering that getting a job no longer meant keeping a job. Although I learned lessons along the way and ended up in a career better suited for me than many of the ones I left or lost, I nevertheless felt guilty about not having the ability to stick with one career until retirement.

Truth be known, my problems really began when I retired as a dancer, because show business has a completely different mindset. Individuality is embraced – indeed, expected. I’ve said many times that once I hit the “real world,” I felt like I put on a mask every day to go to work. That never changed. And because of that show business background where individuality was prized, I had to work hard to be a “team player.” Why? Because I don’t really want to be a team player; I want to stand out as having something unique to offer.

One last thing: I could probably go on for pages about the generational differences and how they subtly affect our exchanges, but I’m told blog posts should be relatively short because no one likes to read any more! Pity. I feel like I’ve short-changed the subject but I’m still trying to be a good team player.