Friday, January 8, 2016

Here Comes Us Old People - Like It Or Not

Discrimination due to age is one of the great tragedies of modern life. The desire to work and be useful is what makes life worth living, and to be told your efforts are not needed because you are the wrong age is a crime.    - Johnny Ball

It's still ringing in my ears. I'd just moved to New York City and was having a casual conversation with one of the largest domestic employment referral agencies on the east coast. I was happily employed and not even looking, but for some reason she felt a need to volunteer her thoughts about my suspected geriatric condition, just in case I was getting any cute ideas about switching employers while sitting there next to her:  

"I can't place old people, I mean, well you know what I mean, 50's. My clients don't want to deal with their health issues."  

"Good to know" is all that I, a 52 year old, could think to reply. 

"Their health issues". What, exactly, in the world was she talking about?  Aside from a little dry skin in the winter that was always taken care of by a small tube of Jergens that I'd get on sale at Walgreen's, I didn't have any health issues. I soon learned that didn't matter, though, because the perception of an issue, or a skill, or a talent - not always the reality - is how people get hired. Or don't.  

And that was the impetus for me starting the NYC Domestic Staff Physical Fitness MeetUp a couple of years back, which allowed domestic workers of all shapes and ages to participate together in a healthy, fun activity, one that got their hind quarters off their sofa - and peeled out of those endless domestic training seminar folding chairs - something to show both themselves and their prospective employers that their age did not determine "health issues" as much as each individual workers' initiative and personal desire to take personal responsibility and to ensure they keep their own selves, well, healthy.

But this post isn't reminiscing about those times. It's to talk about "old people" as we're so eloquently known to so many agents and their clients. And we're coming at the world in greater volume, every year. Because most of our parents had us shortly after returning from WWII, and there hasn't been as much baby making as that, ever since. The actuary charts show that 25-55 year olds will soon become virtually flat at 2%, while the rest of us north of that group are increasing in waves upwards of 20% or more - each year. So here comes us old people - like it or not.

Google "hire older workers" and you'll find any number of articles on why age 50+ workers are not hired, but missing from those lists are two reasons that I think are fairly powerful:

1)  We remind people of their own mortality. That's a gentle way of saying people surround themselves with young people so they can momentarily - and 24/7 if there's enough financial resources - set aside any unpleasant thoughts about being dead one day. 

Few people, naturally, want to even think about this inevitability, and no one has to while gazing upon a 32 year old Estate Manager, someone who still has all of their collagen; someone who probably doesn't even get dry skin in the winter. Seeing a 52 year old Estate Manager, however, it all gets too dangerously close to a realization about the direction life is actually marching in - with or without any resources.

2) We remind people of some TV show they once watched on Nick-At-Nite, I think it was one of the spin-off shows from I Love Lucy, the one where some of the characters in the show had retired and actually stopped working. The concept of retirement was actually quite popular back in the early 1960s, but, honestly, I don't know anyone that is retired today. Everyone I know needs to stay employed to be able to survive, especially here in NYC. 

Another domestic agent enlightened me recently that it would be virtually impossible for me - now 56 (and drawing stares on the sidewalk, because, well just think about it, who knew that someone could actually remain upright for this long?)  - to be hired, because "they'd know you'd quit in six years when you'd retire at 62 and start taking your social security."  I guess this fella knows some retired people, or maybe he saw that same re-run TV show. But not only can I not even conceive of stopping work at 62, even if I did, that would have been six years of service to one employer - and I'm not sure many people could match a run like that. 

I've never thought of the domestic staff industry as being on the cutting edge of social change or even progressive human resource management, but, who knows. If only one domestic staffing agent reads this post and it causes them to hesitate, even for just a split nanosecond, when the next client rings them up for a domestic and says "don't send me any old people," it could be the first step of the long journey toward some real sensibility. And every journey begins with a thought, and then a perception, then a hesitation - and then a step

And I can just about guarantee you - that's one step that we'll never see having to use a walker.

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