Ageism is Alive and Well at the Office

This won't be grammatically perfect, nor will it be typo-free.  I've been there, done that, all week, all month, all year, for nearly five years at my workplace, and it's Friday evening and I'm tired.  in fact it was 5:20 this evening when I first started to think about  how cubicles had been emptying quietly since 4 PM and as I delivered documents to a few empty cublicles I heard the twenty- and thirty-somethings making plans for an impromptu evening together for themselves and their significant others, wine and dinner somewhere.

Two of my best friends don't work on Fridays, and other folks had left early, as is often the case.  It had been another long week of being overworked and underpaid.  I thought how nice a glass of wine sounded, and maybe a splurge on a modest dinner.   

I return to my desk and begin to type.  Click-click-click on the keyboard... Footsteps move toward the cubicle of the only other person remaining this day on the west side of the 2nd floor.  He is 15 feet from me as the paper airplane flies.  He is invited out, and reminded to bring his girlfriend.

I continue to clickety-click away.  I often wonder whether the clickety-click of the keys as annoying to the CEO, who I work for.  

Footsteps, keys jingling, the thirty-something who is 15 feet from me is asked by two more people, whether he and his girlfriend would like to join the group.  He says he's coming.  Sounds of his computer shutting down, sounds of a jacket being pulled on.

"Is it just us?"

"Yes, I think so."

Really?  I wonder as I type away...clickety-clickety-frick-frick-frickety-CLICK-CLICK-FRICKETY-FRICKEN-CLICK!...

Snap. 

Goes the light switch.

I look up at the ceiling and blink as my ears pick up the echo of footsteps on the carpeted staircase.  

The Invisible Woman I am now cloaked in semi darkness.  Again.  Despite the fact that all the Friday night revelers needed my help off and on all day...they and others...and the fact that I am the most centrally-located person in the office and most of these people walk past me, and often exchange a comment, an average of 15-30 times a day.  And I'm sitting there typing.  Typing loudly.  But it never occurred to any of them to peek around to my desk and at least be polite.  Not one of these people who I truly admire for their dedication, strength, intelligence and kindness in every situation, thought to give me a polite invitation that I could thank them for, wish them well, and tell them I can't make it, because I truly didn't even want to join them, I just wanted to be asked.

But it simply never occurred to any of them because they can't see me unless they want something.

It's pretty rare these days, but when my friends and I decide at 5 to go out, whether it's two of us, or five of us, I walk the entire floor saying 'Would you like to go with us to _____?  You are certainly welcome to join us'.  And I smile.  They won't go, but they know someone asked, and sometimes that's what matters the most.  Being noticed.  Being acknowledged.  Being given choices.

As for me, I'm single and I love a good brew, but I don't fit in with the Twenty-, Thirty-, Forty- and the hipper, better-educated and better-paid Fiftysomethings who went out tonight, because I don't have at least a bachelor's degree, a decent title, and because I'm 57. 

None of them knows that while I am only an Administrative Assistant (for the CEO who regularly tells me "YOU ROCK!", for the CFO, the Public Programs Director, and the Development Manager, for whoever else needs help.  I'm pretty sure they haven't noticed that I Chair a 17 member committee that happens to be the most important one in our entire facility.  And certainly none of them knows that I used to run my own business.  None of them knows that I beat breast cancer.  None of them knows that I escaped an abusive husband and started my life over with nothing, at age 49. 

None of them knows that, while I have only two years of formal education, I could entertain them pretty well at the brewery with stories from my days as the Detox Office Manager /Technician alone on swing shift at a residential rehab (think Celebrity Rehab without designer clothes, and with criminals).  None of them knows that I had night after night of shifts with a mix of people they cannot even imagine knowing, much less being in charge of. 

If they could imagine taking care of someone coming off heroin, while you have an alcoholic prostitute waiting for her mom to slip a bottle of booze through a bedroom window, while a sweet 22 year old girl is sitting sitting in her room depressed over her brother's death and wondering whether you found the razor blade she managed to obtain and hide, while a heavyset, 6 foot 4 inch schizophrenic man thinks there's a shootoot taking place in the hallway and he's grabbing the other women clients and pulling them into his room to protect them...Well, c'mon.  You know I've got stories.

I've also been a business owner.

But they don't have stories and they've never run their own business, and they don't have stories.  When the educated hipsters pass my desk, stopping for 15 seconds to introduce a new employee, they call me 'The Receptionist!'  Which I'm not.  But they always smile real big and add lots of enthusiasm and say "If you need any pencils or pens, come to Jeana!" and "If you ever have trouble with the copier, Jeana knows everything there is to know about it!" And they go on their way, having been properly nice to the Receptionist, acknowledging her talents.  They have no clue what I do.

Last week at noon I stepped up to my friend, Deborah's, cubicle as I hadn't seen much of her that day.  She was working at her computer, going over photographs and designs.  Deborah is health conscious, creative (she is part of the Marketing Dept.), caring, interesting and funny. 

"Hi!  How is your day going?" I asked.

Deborah's chair turned slowly, stopped as she faced me.  She splayed out her legs and arms like a rag doll laying back in her chair, and looked up at me in the oddest way I'd ever seen, for her.  

"My department just left for lunch out today.  They didn't ask me to go."

Most of the people who didn't invite Deborah out for the treat of a Thai food lunch were the same ones who didn't invite me out to the brewery. 

Deborah is in her 60s but doesn't look it.  And Deborah has lived quite a life.  With no colledge education she left an abusive husband, raised four kids alone, and bought a house.  She, too, fought breast cancer and won.  She was a professional freelance photographer, developing her own film as she explored the Pacific Northwest and Alaska with little more than a camera and a dog.  She went back to college to study graphic arts and has been working four 10-hour days a week for 15 years.  And she volunteers with the local fire department the rest of the time. 

But it never occurs to anyone in her department to invite her to lunch with them.  When they return, no one says "Gee, sorry Deborah..."  They just didn't notice that she wasn't there.

In fact she recently admitted to me that when the new 30-something Marketing Director got settled in, it got back to her that he had discussed with his Superiors, an out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new plan for D's job. 

It didn't work.  This time.  But when she goes I've no doubt that she'll be replaced by someone who won't ever have seen 80s hairstyles in person.

When we needed a great Public Relations person to fill the big shoes left by a seasoned and very charming, bright, savvy fiftysomething, the thirty-something Marketing Director hired a twenty-something.  She smiles a lot.  She smiles when other people wouldn't.  She smiles and her eyes sparkle and her voice lilts, no matter what's going on.  She's very diplomatic and has generic answers for everything (insert lilting voice and smile again, here, with a sparkle of eye).  At any moment when there's a crisis I expect her to say "Oh, my, I'm ever so confident that everything will be fine and we'll all do our jobs to the best of our ability!"  Smile, smile, sparkle, happy lilting voice!  She is a walking, talking textbook for PR classes.  There's no charm, there's no imperfection, there's nothing that makes you want to be her friend.  

When our Operations & Security team recently saw the retirement of a class-act gentleman who'd served in the military, had a Master's degree in Psychology, and had been a police officer, they brought in new blood.  I always felt relatively safe knowing the previous fellow was in place in our very large organization, where we also are in charge of the safety of the public.  There can be anywhere from 300 to 3,500 people on site at any given time.  I would be surprised if our latest Ops staff is of legal drinking age.  I heard one of them giggling the other day, over a figurine on my desk.  I wonder how they'll do if ever we have a bomb on site, or some crazy person with a gun, or in a natural disaster.  The new 'kids' wouldn't even be able to lift one of our organization's survival packs, much less carry it all the way to high ground.      

And all of the young people coming in are paid well.  And they are sent to lovely places for the good of all of us.  All expenses paid rental cars and nice hotel rooms and meals, for the good of the organization, so they can learn and they can network.  And all have young significant others bringing a second income into the household.  In the meantime I can't make it on my hourly pay.  I arrive before they do, I leave after they do.  And I work very, very hard all day in between.  But no one's ever asked me whether, as a single woman, I can make it on my pay.  That's why, at age 57, I now have to seek a new job.  This is not going to be easy.

While Jay was being invited out for wine and dinner, 15 feet from me, I'd have liked to have stood up, leaned over and smiled and said "I can't make it.  I'm busy tonight."   

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