Mea culpa: When I'm not a starving author, musician or loudmouth as indicated above, I am (or was) a corporate droid, and have been for longer than I would like to admit. Though I started my career as a copywriter and creative director with small shops, including one of my own, in my early forties when the kids learned my PIN I jumped ship to the client side, and before I knew it I was a marketing communications cog in the world's biggest corporate wheel, IBM.
(Note: The web is crawling with posts and news about the latest IBM bloodbath and what it all means for the tech biz, not to mention "a smarter planet." This is not one of those posts. Rather it is a snapshot of a boomer's initial reaction to it. )
This week, after almost 15 years masquerading as an IT marketer and good corporate citizen, happily reaping the financial benefit, I was "resourced" (IBM parlance for "laid off"), along with 12,000 others around the globe. And even though working for a giant corporation requires more patience and endurance than skill, to get the axe at 58 does not exactly feel like that golden opportunity to go do what I've always wanted to do. Truth is, thanks to the stability provided by the corporate gig, I used my down time to do exactly what I've wanted to do for many years.
How does that work? a sane person might wonder. During my tenure at IBM I learned that productivity is self-perpetuating: I found the time to write most of four novels during the interminable conference calls and weeks of waiting for Ogilvy, shopped two of them via lit agents and landed a publishing deal for the first, Hack. (The next one, American Corporate, is perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Also during that time I was consistently rated as a top performer, was on the executive fast track, traveled the world and made out like a bandit. Then, some time shortly after crossing into my fifties, life (and death) stepped in.
First, I made the decision that it was more important to help my parents as they prepared to depart the planet than it was to climb the corporate ladder, so we moved from the IBM nerve center in Westchester County back home to the San Francisco Bay Area where I took a "work at home" gig (work at home = *poof* you're gone!). Then, from the age of 52-56, my mom got dementia and then died, followed by my dad a year later and my mother-in-law 10 days after that.
During all this dying I had four surgeries, including a spinal fusion that caused chronic peripheral neuropathy (nerve pain) in my feet and still does, my kids graduated from high school and moved away and our old dog decided to join the grandparents. Business as usual, right? Except that after many months of medical leave and returning to work in a haze of pain meds, IBM noticed that my get up and go had gotten up and left, and so spent the last three years finding other younger, often offshore people to do the work while slowly shuffling me out the door.
When work/life balance is temporarily unbalanced by life responsibilities and the physical and mental fallout of grief and pain, how much empathy can a faceless corporation be expected to show, and for how long? Sure, I can sit here all night and chant "their loss, their loss," and I can tell myself that I got a resume that'll do jumping jacks on the heads of any wannabe digerati coast-to-coast, but there ain't no denying that my juice is no longer 80 proof. Or maybe it is, but it's not exactly the bottomless well it once was; it's a natural decrease in strength, endurance and vitality brought on by the unavoidable circumstance of living. But does that mean my idea factory can only churn out Hallmark cards from now on?
So now, all of a sudden, all those blog posts about the over-55 interviewee, the over-55 resume, the over-55 sportcoat and how to make that turkey gaggle disappear... After yesterday I'm starting to pay attention. I don't know how much of that will apply to someone who does their best work in their jammies under the Milky Way, but I would be a fool not to avail myself of all the knowledge being shared by those that have gone before me.
Becoming another boomer stat today may be better than having been a boomer stat on the Mekong in 1969, but it still doesn't feel very good. Ageism is not only real, it's natural. If I were to sit across a desk and tell a 30-something interviewer that I cut my teeth on SEO, they would know that the term wasn't even invented until I was in my fifties. And when I pulled out my best Travis Bickle and asked my interviewer "Are you talkin' to me?" and they responded with an "of course, who else would I be talking to?" I might shake my head: it IS an old movie, right? Then, just for the fun of it, since I would know that the next stop was the lobby, I might lean forward over the desk, adjust my dentures, clean my glasses, cup my ear, say "Speak up, will ya sonny?", then fart as only a 58-year old male can, and head home to my La-Z-Boy.
Jeb Harrison is a practicing father and the author of the novel "Hack", a page-turning chortle warbler. He is also the proprietor of "Adventures in Limboland", home of similar silliness and of no redeeming social significance whatsoever.