An interesting thing has started happening with more and more frequency. I am pretty sure it defies the laws of physics, but I am becoming invisible. My wife still seems to see me pretty well (although in most cases she is quite good at not seeing the worst parts of me). But many times when we are out in public I seem to have become almost completely invisible. The phenomenon is especially prevalent when we walk in a mall or on a busy street where there are groups of young people.
We walk at a reasonable pace for people who have experienced the bumps and bruises of a well lived life but for some reason it never seems to prevent the youngsters from walking right through us. Even as they approach us coming the wrong way down the path, we vanish from sight as they never move one inch to the left or right to pass us. Surely it can’t be that they don’t have any respect for folks who are older than them. I can’t imagine growing up in a world where elders aren’t treated with some level of respect. We had always been taught to step out of the way of folks who deserved some recognition for their life’s achievements.
It happens in fast food restaurants too.
Not only do we disappear to the teenagers who rush to the counter while we are moving forward, but the cashiers seem to struggle with our presence. When they do see us, it’s hardly ever accompanied by a smile or a kind word. Heaven help us if my wife struggles to see the too small print on the menu displays or has a delay in deciding what she wants. That is almost certain to be met with a disdainful response, a mumbled statement about wanting fries with that, and a hearty “for here or to go?”. Many times they ask us to repeat our answer a few times too. Perhaps our voices become muted or suppressed when we are invisible.
It’s happened a number of times in the past six months in a place I had never experienced it before.
During an unexpected job search that was kind of thrust upon me quite suddenly, I have discovered the phenomenon has been extending into interview rooms. My resume has a number of fine qualities and sought after skills that reflect many years of trying to be the best in my field. But from the minute that the young woman at the reception desk offers me a seat so I can rest up a bit until the end of the interview, I can almost feel myself disappearing.
One recent interview was almost comical. All three of the men (two of whom were very much younger than me) kept asking me if I was sure if I wanted this much stress. Why would I set myself up for a job that has so much pressure. What is your long term goal? (Translation: We are terrified that you are going to have a heart attack and die on us ten minutes after you start).
Fortunately for their company, some HR person had coached them not to say “at your age old timer” at the end of every statement about taking on new challenges. I don’t think I even made it out of the room before I disappeared this time. To make up for my invisibility, the one guy kept staring at my resume looking for something he never quite found. I honestly believe he was frustrated in seeking but not finding a way to say he was worried that I would need a daily nap.
There have been a lot of studies done recently about the effect the permanent recession has had on the job market. The long term unemployed find themselves shoved lower and lower into the bottom of the pile. Employers have the ability to be much choosier now than at any point since the great depression. A bachelor’s degree seems to be the minimal entry level for many positions and advanced degrees are almost required for a serious interview.
Hidden in amongst the underpinnings of a tight job market though, age has turned from being a potential asset to a mark of invisibility. While Viet Nam era vets still have a preferential hiring for some companies on paper, I can assure you from personal experience that marking that box will guarantee complete invisibility to the twenty something that is screening resumes/applications. Hell, you might as well mark down “Civil War Veteran” in their eyes.
Now I am not complaining. I have had a great ride up to this point. I suppose I was just under the impression that gaining a lifetime worth of skills and experience was a solid investment.
Take a look in the mirror. What do you see? No, not just the superficial things like a few laugh lines and some grey hairs in your sideburns. What do you really see?
- I see a young man that volunteered to go and serve his country during one of its most difficult times instead of going off to college and burning his draft card
- I see a young man helping a shipmate that was struggling with his qualification program. Together they spend hour after hour studying rather than sleep so they can keep learning the lifesaving skills needed to operate a submarine.
- I see that same young man carrying a CO2 fire extinguisher into a smoking compartment where the air is so thick you have to drop to your knees to see.
- I see a newly minted Petty Officer bracing himself on a pitching submarine that had been sucked to the surface in a typhoon… he goes through a mental checklist of every operation and casualty response because he knows he has a role to play and so many people are counting on him.
- I see a second class who went through over 50 technical engineering classes that can fix and troubleshoot everything under his responsibility. That same man qualifies as a Chief of the Watch on his submarine despite the fact that he is not even a first class yet.
- I see a man who worked with his buddies until 4 in the morning on more than one occasion to get the boat ready for sea at 0700 only to have the first underway watch.
- I see a Chief taking a struggling division and helping them to realize that they are so much better than they could have imagined… so much so that many of them went on to become Chiefs themselves
- I see an Engineering Officer of the Watch on a thirty year old ship in the North Atlantic in a hurricane keeping two engine rooms and the watch standers manning them functioning despite the rolling of the ship and waves breaking over the bow
- I see a civilian who has taught hundreds of classes to thousands of students and helped to launch corporate initiatives in his chosen field.
- I see a project manager who has managed projects with global impact and hundreds of thousands of dollars at risk if the project fails
- I see a leader who has stood in the way of trouble when others thought it wasn’t worth the risk
I could go on and on but I think it frightens my wife when I spend so much time looking in the mirror, especially at this point in my life.
I am at the point in my life when I realize that you can’t live on past accomplishments and glory. The medals I was given are wonderful decorations on my fireplace with the shadowbox my last ship gave me. I have never in my life expected something for nothing. Just because I and others like me did what we did does not ensure we have a place in line.
I just never thought that all of that would be cancelled out like a carton of milk with an expired sell by date. Frankly, I think my ability to solve problems and innovate is actually at a higher level than at any point in my life. Don’t you think a company would welcome someone who has made some mistakes along the way and found ways to overcome them?
Do you honestly think that the pressure of making cars and trucks is greater than that faced on an average day at 400 feet under the water in hostile territory with a bad guy following you? I think the same can be said of combat, flying and landing a 50 million dollar jet from the deck of a carrier? How about landing a helicopter in a hot LZ to medevac some wounded GI’s clinging on to life? I wonder as you sit across the conference room table from an experienced worker if you have taken the time to truly see them. Or do your eyes begin to see right through them as you realize that with experience comes age?
Believe it or not I am becoming quite adapted to my new status. We are reevaluating and prioritizing our life and as in every other situation I have faced, I will come out okay. Those years of experience may just help us to come out of the current situation in pretty good shape. I would only offer one word of caution to those who feel that they are better off without the experienced people they are rejecting. Time will continue to pass and someday you may find yourself seated across from someone half your age. If you have helped to create and perpetuate a culture where age is a bad thing, you may find your actions have some unintended consequences.
The Byrds had a hit song when I was younger that seems to fit this article.
To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven
A Time for Everything
1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.