I got laid off a couple years ago, at 41. When you get laid off and you’re 40 or older, included in your severance packet is a document that lists the ages of all your co-workers. It’s required under the — and typing this makes me slightly despondent — Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990, meant to defend the benefits of workers from age discrimination. Perusing this list feels wrong, like you’re invading your former colleagues’ privacy. Yet you can’t look away. Seeing your age and their ages, like that, in a list, in black and white, jolts you into considering where you’re at on your professional journey. And what I realized when I saw my age on the list: I was much older than I thought.
It wasn’t just that I was 41, which, let’s face it, isn’t old. It was that I was 41 and bored. And a little tired. And, at times, cantankerous. Crotchety, you might say. My professional age was more like 51. Sometimes 61. Once, in a conversation with an intern in the work kitchen about the fridge clean-out schedule, I was 89. A spry 89, but still.
Exacerbating this problem was the fact that I had spent the entire span of my thirties at one place — a prestigious men’s magazine. I thought I had stability and security and swagger. What I didn’t realize is that I had slowly started draining energy from the place where I worked instead of injecting it with my own. I was getting soft. I was getting lazy. I was getting older than my colleagues.
And then I was getting let go.
A couple months into unemployment, I got a job at another prestigious men’s magazine. There, I was even older relative to my colleagues. And I was all of a sudden having to prove myself, for the first time in a decade. To do this, I had no choice but to become one of them. And becoming one of them meant lowering my professional age.
When you’re middle-aged and suddenly find yourself surrounded by younger people, you can either ignore them (because what could they — especially Jaydn — possibly teach you?) or you can open your mind and learn from them. You can Benjamin Button your way to a renewed career. All it requires is a little humility and a lot of respect for people who are hardworking, ambitious, and bubbling with a thousand times more energy than you. It requires learning from them.
And if you choose to learn, here’s what they’ll teach you.
No one cares how old you are.
They care how good you are. And how kind. And how willing you are to collaborate. They don’t care how old you are. But they do care about how old you seem.
Your office is a trap.
Recent research has debunked the hateful myth that open offices are more productive offices. But here’s my own research on a less-studied aspect of the office setup: Unless you’re the boss — and maybe even then — that office is ultimately going to get you fired. That office is an illusion. It’s a comfy sweater that hides your weight gain. It’s a warm place for people who are tired and want to talk to the cat groomer without anyone knowing their business. I spent a lot of my twenties and thirties waiting for the day I’d have an office, and I finally got one at the new place. And all of a sudden I was working with people who just didn’t care about it.
Not only did they not care, but during a restructuring, one of my colleagues was actually bummed he would have to leave Cubeland and move into his own closed-door space. At first, it didn’t compute. “But you have a door, man!” I thought. “And you can close it! You can privately talk to your plumber!!”
But now I get it. For him, the office is a democracy. The office is where you work with people and make interesting things happen, together. Why would you work any better because you were able to close your door? Why wouldn’t you want to be around other people who are working hard? Why wouldn’t you want to Slack funny shit to them and hear them laugh about it? Why wouldn’t you want to be an active member of a community? (Because you’re tired, that’s why. And your office is where you can nap with your eyes open. And soften.)
You’re acting old.
The older employee can’t help it sometimes. At some point you just lose the ability to sense your own behaviors. And early on at my new job, I was just that older employee. I interrupted people in meetings. It got back to me, too, and it was mortifying. So I changed my behavior. Soon there were numerous other behaviors I discovered I needed to change: Saying no a lot. Also: “We done here?” The “no-look pass” where you walk past someone in the hallway without acknowledgment. Attentive readers will note that what these jackanapes were pushing me to develop were… manners.
You can change your job from within.
If you came up in the 2000s, within a year or two of being in the workforce, you were disabused of the notion that you have, you know, a say in what kind of work you do and how you do it. But for people coming up in the 2010s — people who look at jobs as stints — being nimble and entrepreneurial is just how you are… always. You pivot, either to another job entirely or to a new way of doing your current job. For older workers, you just have to tap into that post-college idealism you felt at your first job. Because you were right and they were trying to screw you over. The office manager who says “We don’t have the resources for that” or “Please leave my office” is an obstacle you have to work around, not a brick wall.
Mentorship is reciprocal.
Help them. Because you know things and have seen things. And you are inured to certain events, like mass layoffs and budget cuts. You know how to cope. Your stalwart attitude is a model. But also admit what you don’t know. There’s nothing more humble than saying to a younger colleague, “You’re better at this than me. You should do it, and I’ll watch.” And there’s nothing more flattering.
You have to move on.
Younger workers just don’t carry around shame and embarrassment like older workers. Social media has provided them with a platform for expression and feedback to that expression. We think we’re the calloused ones. We’re not. They are.
You have to stay hungry.
People in their twenties have always been naturally hungry. They’re even hungrier now that, almost a quarter of the way into this bonkers century, “stability” seems like an outmoded concept. If you’re not looking to prove your worth every day, then you’ve stopped being afraid to fail. So you will.
Earlier this year, I was laid off from the new place, too. It was a strangely thrilling experience. It felt like an opportunity, not an ordeal. The prospect of starting over somewhere else wasn’t traumatic at all. Why would it be? I was nimble, eager, ambitious, and unshakable. I was young.