This guest post is by Ruth Ginzberg, 65, the Sr. I.T. Procurement Specialist at the University of Wisconsin System. She has an allegedly useless humanities degree in Philosophy with a concentration in Ethics, and an advanced technical degree in Information Systems Security.
I keep trying to figure out why so many articles about older workers as valuable resources, and older individuals outside of work as valuable members of the community, still make me grouchy.
I think it’s because they still promote stereotypes, just perhaps slightly more positive stereotypes than those that depict us as all in the throes of decline, disability, dementia and death.
The wise, kindly, nurturing grandmotherly and grandfatherly stereotypes often featured in such pieces may describe some older individuals, but let’s not forget that many older individuals don’t fit, and don’t want to fit, into those kinds of roles in their workplaces or communities either.
Older individuals don’t lose our ability to analyze, problem solve, direct others, invent, create, design, develop, manage people and resources, lead initiatives, complete projects and accept feedback (including both positive and negative feedback) that helps us grow to the next level. This is true whether or not we are “retired.”
Not all older workers are repositories of “institutional memory.” Some older workers have only worked for their current employers for several years themselves, and are still learning the business (and in need of as much training, mentoring and professional development as are younger workers with only a few years in their current roles).
Some older individuals are more comfortable analyzing, synthesizing, designing, engineering, building, and testing solutions to tricky problems than they are reading children’s books to toddlers or gardening with middle schoolers.
Some older individuals have talents they’ve not yet had the time or energy to develop, and cherish the opportunity to develop them later in life. Some older individuals discover talents they never knew they had before.
Most older individuals probably don’t want to play the role of stereotypical characters in somebody else’s script.
Even stereotypes that on the surface appear to be positive often are not. They still pigeonhole multi-dimensional human beings by reducing them to one-dimensional caricatures The problem is that the invoked stereotype, viewed close up, interferes with the ability to see older individuals’ many other talents and skills.
We can’t just replace negative stereotypes with more positive stereotypes and believe our work is done. We need to push this transformation to the next level