I still have no clue how I became just about the oldest person in our office. I must have missed the memo that was supposed to give me the heads-up. Today got here faster than I ever might have expected, and the time warp has given me whiplash. My term for this rite of passage, this occupational hazard? The flip side.
Of course, at 53, I’m hardly old. But I’m older than all but maybe six of the 120 employees in the regional branch of our public relations firm—slightly older than the few fortysomethings, somewhat older than the many thirtysomethings, and much older than our ubiquitous twentysomethings.
It seems only yesterday I was still the new kid on the job, with no idea what I was doing. When my colleagues gave instructions, I took plenty of notes, and nobody ever mistook me for anyone important. I worried about everything—performing up to snuff, getting chewed out by the boss, being fired—and lived in a state of low-grade paranoia. No one expected me to know much of anything.
Now, suddenly, I operate from the opposite end of the spectrum, a baby boomer plying my trade shoulder to shoulder with generations X and Y.
At this point in my career, when I share an observation, colleagues might take notes and clients usually assume I know something. People at work are more inclined to listen to me, smile at me, and laugh at my jokes—somewhere along the road, I apparently became fascinating, charming, and funny. (These workplace habits can get you noticed by your boss—in a good way.)
I’ve graduated to the stature of tribal elder. It’s practically an out-of-body experience.
Even so, being older than almost everyone on the premises has certain … imperfections. Some of my younger colleagues have higher salaries, fancier titles, and larger offices (luckily, I’m a stranger to envy), and I often report to those very folks. My age creates certain differences with my juniors, too, in priorities and points of reference.
For example, I now go to the dentist more frequently than I go to parties. Most of my colleagues are getting married and having babies, while I’ve just gone in for my first colonoscopy. I also find myself wondering how anyone could possibly care about Selena Gomez when I still have a crush on Sophia Loren.
It’s also strange occasionally being called dude.
I perceive time differently too. My younger colleagues typically talk much faster than I can listen—and, for that matter, often listen much faster than I can talk.
Some coworkers will e-mail me a note, only to leave me a voice mail five minutes later repeating the message, then—still suffering from the lack of a response—pop into my office just moments afterward regarding the same thing.
Like network television, I now evidently operate on some sort of a seven-second delay. It reminds me of the George Carlin joke about how the shortest interval of time in the known universe is that fraction of a second between a traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn.
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The flip side definitely takes some getting used to. But get used to it I must, and for the most part I have. I’ve realized that being an older employee has a larger meaning, an underlying purpose, special responsibilities: to pass along lessons learned, to influence and inspire. And to set an example as a case study in how to emerge from layoffs, recessions, and other adversities all the stronger. Since I’ve already gone where my colleagues are still going, they can look at me and better see themselves tomorrow.
I’m also trying to “work young”—talking a little faster and listening faster too. But above all, I’ve learned to respect my juniors. Only a few years ago, I never much cottoned to getting suggestions from anyone 10 or 20 years younger, and forget about following any orders.
Thanks to these “kids” teaching me how, I’ve finally emerged as a real team player. I also realize that after any serious discussion, the single most empowering question you can ever ask a younger staffer is “So, what do you think?”
The flip side has turned out to be both heartening and humbling. Little did I ever suspect that being older than almost everyone else at my job would give me a second chance to accomplish something long overdue. Namely, to grow up.