Rethinking How We Age at Work

As a middle-aged female with a long career in HR communications consulting, I’ve been reconsidering my role as a “maturing” business woman. In my experience, women tend to behave in one of two ways as they get older. One camp is proud of their longevity, and frequently point to their extensive track records. They’ll refer to junior staffers as “kids,” bemoan the “good old days,” and either use technology poorly or eschew it altogether. My camp, by contrast, while not ashamed of getting older, definitely work hard at appearing ageless. I will rarely, if ever, discuss generational differences between myself and the junior staff. Similarly, the only time I reference the “good old days” is to illustrate business trends, and I’d never suggest that they were in any way better (even though they were). Finally, I’m fully versed in technology, but if I have questions, I’ll call IT rather than ask an Associate to peer over my shoulder, while pointing at my computer screen.

According to conventional wisdom, I’ve made the shrewder choice. Ageism and sexism can easily derail an otherwise lengthy career. So by not calling attention to my seniority, I reduce the risk of being overlooked, undermined or dismissed because of my age and gender.

Lately, though, I’ve been re-thinking this. For most of my career, I’ve been a client-facing consultant at a series of professional services firms (Deloitte, Aon, among others). However, there was a brief period between Deloitte and Aon when I spent a year as the Communications Manager in the HR department of a research company. My boss, a woman in her early sixties, was facing the tail end of a very long, very successful career. And boy was she proud of it! She loved to regale her department, particularly “the kids” with stories of her glory days, which would’ve been charming if she hadn’t been a manipulative, tyrannical bully who lied, yelled, and tormented us. In a rare self-disclosure, she admitted that she’d had a stroke a few years before, and it occurred to me that this might account for her erratic, impulsive behavior as well as what appeared to be signs of a mental decline. In the morning, she was alert and energetic, but by mid-afternoon, she became easily confused, and forgot names and dates. I wasn’t the only employee aware of her lapses. She had a small staff of senior managers, most of whom had reported to her for several decades, and they did their best to protect her. They jumped in when she trailed off, filled in words when she blanked out, and tried to calm her down when she went on a tirade.

I never did learn the real story behind her behavior—eventually I found another job—but I also never forgot her.  Now, almost ten years later, I can’t stop wondering if she was in fact the shrewd one. By not hiding her maturity or ignoring her long tenure, she came across as more real, more authentic, and in the end, more worthy of her staff’s loyalty. Granted, some of her behavior was beyond her control—I’m sure she didn’t blank out on purpose. Even so, perhaps it’s time to consider the possibility that conventional wisdom isn’t always the wisest choice.

Along with my corporate career, I have a parallel life as a novelist. A year or so after I left the research company and returned to consulting, I started a novel, THIS COULD HURT, about an HR Chief’s on-the-job stroke and the senior managers who rally to protect her. Of course, the novel is fiction, but its themes and plot twists have prompted me to talk to my female coworkers about what it’s like to age in the corporate world, particularly in a male-dominated industry. Their answers range from “horrible” to “awful,” and none of us have any quick fixes. However, there is one thing I know for sure. Although I’ve witnessed all sorts of bad behavior throughout my career, my brief time working for an aging HR Chief also revealed comradery, humor and moments of grace. So maybe my “more mature” colleagues and I would do well to remember that our elders can still teach us important lessons, even inadvertently. Maybe, too, it’s okay to be proud of our longevity—and teach the “kids” what it was like in the “good old days”—as we quickly, quickly become elders ourselves.

 

About the Author: Jillian Medoff is a senior consultant with the Segal Group, a professional services firm that specializes in HR-related issues. Prior to Segal, she worked for several Fortune 500 companies, including Deloitte, Aon Consulting and Marsh & McLennan, where she advised HR executives on all aspects of the employee experience, such as workforce engagement, performance management, and professional development. Along with a corporate career, Jillan is also a novelist; her fourth novel, THIS COULD HURT, a razor-sharp office satire, will be published in January by HarperCollins.

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