Of Mice and Molecules...
A Hidden Peril of the White Collar World
Here's one of those things that no one ever tells you when you're young: retirement age may be 65, but not too many people in the professional world seem to get there these days. I'd argue that more people are tossed from their jobs, kicking and screaming than not.
There was an old professor at the University of Florida while I was there. No one knew his name; everyone called him 'Sea Captain' on account of the seaman captain's hat he wore. He was an emeritus professor whose lab hadn't functioned in forever, and yet he refused to retire and leave the University. Sea Captain would wander here and there, talking to people who would tolerate him. He also attended scientific talks from visiting professors, where he would interrupt the speaker to ask long rambling questions that often devolved into bitter testimonials about how the University fat cats put him out to pasture.
The man had no idea when to shut his mouth. Often, the organizer would have to intervene and cut Sea Captain off, who wouldn't even wrap up his tirade once it was clear he needed to shut the fuck up. It was some cringey shit.
One day Sea Captain disappeared. No one ever saw him again. The man was either humanely euthanized or was somehow fired from his position. For someone with tenure to get booted from a Uni, you really have to have some detractors.
This was the first time I really saw ageism in action. Of course I new that this existed, but I'd kind of assumed it applied to mainly physical jobs where loss of physicality resulted in a tangible loss of performance. In my somewhat-Pollyanna view of my world, I somehow thought that the same rules wouldn't apply to me.
Boy was I wrong. So wrong, in fact, that I am starting to think that being booted when you're past your prime is almost the norm, rather than just a possibility.
My fiancee's father worked for the Belgian consulate in Chicago for the better part of his adult life. He was well qualified, had an MBA from Wharton, all the normal stuff. But he was forced into retirement by a mandatory retirement age at 60. And he couldn't find a job anywhere else. This was a motivated guy with experience and education who was "only" sixty, and yet he wasn't able to get back in the game at a high level. He ended his career working selling chocolates at a department store.
The cutoff for when this starts is probably a little flexible, but I've started to see the fuzzy line emerge between our fifth and sixth decades. I once worked with a guy who was in his late fifties who left our company under... well, circumstances. Another guy who was about 40 left around the same time. The younger guy had a job three months later. The older guy, so far as I know, never worked again. Mind you, this is in a hard science field, which is populated with bleeding heart liberals who ostensibly abhor this sort of thing.
The ugly truth is that, barring a handful of CEO types, it is exceedingly difficult to get hired as a white collar worker once you hit 50 or so. You are an old dog who can't keep up, you'll want too much money, your skills are dated; the reasons are many but they don't really matter.
What are the ramifications of this?
There are absolutely a core of well-paying, respectable corporate jobs. There are many ways to break into this circle when you're young, but once you're (to borrow a phrase from Spencer's Gifts) Over The Hill, it's all but impossible to re-enter. Moreover, most people seem unaware that this occurs until they suddenly realize they're 52 and the oldest worker in the office.
Again, this applies to private sector, whitest collar jobs, those yellow brick road positions most subject to free market whims. It can be a cruel ending to a nice life - these are often people who spend like crazy to maintain a luxury lifestyle, for whom a job loss can be almost immediately crippling. They're also people who aren't used to much adversity, who don't handle stress well. I've noticed that many white collar "career" people are disproportionately likely to associate their identities with their work than, say, a barista. I can personally attest the discombobulation of losing a professional job can be strong, even as a young person.
As a 37-year-old who is feeling his age creep up, I'm finding there's only so much we can do to brace for the ride to end. Preparing for the end of your working life is a little like preparing for the end of your biological life. Both often go the way they're going to go, despite your plans to the contrary, and we often don't see it coming. Nevertheless, some thoughts:
- Distance yourself from your career psychologically. I have no idea how to accomplish this (yet), but it's sound advice nonetheless. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius*, "Death smiles at all of us; all one can do is smile back."
- Take care of yourself financially while you still can. You don't want to be the last one dancing when the music stops.
- If you can't handle the idea of being tossed out, government work is a nice option. You'll lose a ton in salary and perks, but you can at least control when you retire. Probably.
*Gladiator stole a quote from a character in the movie. How rare is that?
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Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.