Gray Matters

So gray is the new green? Terrific. The demand for older workers is growing? Glad to hear it. Experience and maturity are the new watchwords? Fabulous.

I’m not entirely sure I believe it, but I’m prepared to be convinced.

There are more people over 55 than ever before in the history of the country; we have critical mass. If even half the information on the subject of older-worker cachet is to be believed, we are entering a golden era for the silver-haired among us. Baby boomers and those of us close enough to consider ourselves part of that demographic are in the catbird seat.

Various reports mention flat employment rates last year for workers in the 20-to-54 age range and growth in the over-55 category. Everyone professes to be worried about the impending wave of boomer retirements and the loss of experience, stability and institutional knowledge – to say nothing of people who remember working conditions that included electric typewriters, carbon paper and printed pink “While You Were Out” message slips.

One report goes so far as to call hiring older workers a hot trend and suggests that they will become some sort of prestigious charm for the corporate bracelet – every business will need at least one. A Brookings Institution researcher quoted in The New York Times talks of a “senior tsunami,” which sounds far more frightening than reassuring.

Say what you like about baby boomers; but this is a group that has been more studied, surveyed, analyzed and researched than any one before it. It is a painfully self-aware collection of human beings that has challenged and changed every institution, every system and every life passage it has encountered – college, the military, politics, government, marriage, religion, divorce, parenting, healthcare and the workplace.

It is also, as a Gen-X colleague of mine once pointed out, a group that has never shut up about anything in its collective life. We are empowered, entitled. We are, as the song says, stardust. We are golden. We love to hear ourselves talk and to hear others talk about us. And we are hearing plenty.

I hate to go bursting old people’s balloons, but I can’t help wondering why it is, if everything is so rosy for the maturest among us, that so many outfits seem to be offering buyouts or early retirement to workers over 55? (Why not buy out those under 35, if the senior workers are so cherished?)

I seem to know a lot of people in their 50s and 60s who worry that their skills are not particularly valued, that they are viewed as interchangeable parts easily replaced by younger folks willing to work for less and put up with more. Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong crowd.

But I think it’s fair to ask if employers are going to be willing to pay for the skills and the expertise and that vaunted institutional knowledge that researchers and report-writers devote so much attention to. Or are they simply going to buy into the notion that seniors, who are, after all, collecting Social Security, can be had for much less than they are worth? And that they should be grateful for any job opportunity that comes their way.

Indulging in a little fast-forwarding and frankly wondering what my own next career move might be, I found an AARP bulletin from 2002 that named “10 positions suited for mature workers.”

The list includes teacher assistant, floral assistant, security screener, home care assistant, tour guide, customer greeter and, my personal favorite, “the mystery shopper.”

It’s not that I was expecting to find Supreme Court justice, media mogul or lifestyle guru on the list; but I was, frankly, hoping to aim a little higher if I make a career change.

Of course, one of the reasons, apart from personal fulfillment, so many boomers will be available to fill empty slots at all levels is that a whole lot of us won’t be able to afford conventional retirement. Apparently saving and investing were never high enough on our to-do list, what with all the self-actualization we were so busy with. Most of us will be trying to hang on to our day jobs for as long as we can or until we snag a winning lottery ticket.

And when retirement comes, I hope it really will turn out to be a virtual Centrum Silver vitamin commercial populated by smiling, empowered, still-challenging-the-system boomers who have no financial worries, no health worries, no family worries. But just in case, I’m working on my mystery shopper skills.

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