Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. Theodore Roosevelt.
National Employ Older Workers Week (September 20-26, 2015) will conjure a broad mix of images. On the one hand, there are older workers who just can’t stop working – they love the camaraderie, the feeling of accomplishment, the structure it gives their day. They work at jobs, often self-generated, that they love. They start the day full of ideas and gusto – end the day with a feeling of accomplishment. They find time for dining out, travel, and golf – and spare cash for domestic assistance.
For many older workers, necessity drives their daily work lives. Often they have always lived on one – or no or low – income. The costs of daily living left no stretch to save, far less invest. Financial consultants and investment advisers are as remote as Wall Street and invitation-only fundraisers for millionaire politicos. Though work may not be an option, these older workers continue to bring experience, skill and commitment to the workplace.
In recent weeks I have had the experience of observing older workers who exemplify the possibilities. My observations were of older women, in this case women religious, who are making significant, creative and forward-looking contributions to the institutions and communities – including global communities — they serve. These women are not working for income, but for self-fulfillment and for the common good. In a word, they offer a holistic sense of older workers. As these older women are providing essential, often innovative, services the offer models of the mental and physical benefits of work. In this era of working to get ahead, working to buy stuff, working to aggregate power, we are in danger of losing sight of “the best prize” – the reward that these women religious experience, the rewards that come from “the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
Admittedly these encounters influence my thoughts on National Employ Older Workers Week. I’m thinking now that the tone of the week is largely pragmatic, at times dismissive, at some points indicative of a sort of do-good attitude that misses the point so eloquently made by President Roosevelt.
Clearly, attitudes differ about the employment of older Americans. They are also evolving, if slowly. For some the benefits will show up on a spreadsheet. The Department of Labor comforts us that “helping older adults remain in the workforce provides a boost to our national economy: These workers pay taxes and cover more of their own expenses during their later years.” In fact, a growing number of federal bureaucrats acknowledge that “scientific studies…demonstrate that, contrary to ageist stereotypes, older workers are a good investment, rating high on characteristics such as judgment, commitment to quality, attendance, and punctuality.”
A growing number of opinion and policy makers are taking small steps to a more inclusive position, acknowledging the expanding – and necessary – role of older workers. The Department of Labor acknowledges that older workers “are the group most likely to be serving as family caregivers for a spouse, elderly parent or other relative – and they report that they receive less accommodation than younger employees who are caring for children.” In fact, AARP asserts that “workplace discrimination against family caregivers is growing more commonplace and more problematic as baby boomers age and combine work in the paid labor force and unpaid work as caregivers for their parents. It may take the form of limited flexibility, denied leave or even a pink slip.”
This at least gets to the point that there is societal benefit to welcoming and supporting older workers. Though it falls short of celebrating Roosevelt’s “best prize” it is a step in the right direction.
Still, I find that my view of Older Worker Week, influenced now by my recent time with the women religious, is through a different prism. For starts, I will reflect on the brilliant words of Marge Piercy who wrote:
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
And I will ponder the wisdom of Maya Angelou who reminded workers that “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
Clearly, there are many ways and many reasons for workers, employers and Americans of all ages to celebrate National Employ Older Workers Week. My hope is that our celebration will focus on the many ways in which, even as the women religious, everyone, regardless of age, enjoys the “best prize that life has to offer — the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” It seems to me that would focus Employ Older Workers Week in a different light.