Saturday, April 16, 2016

Becoming Irrelevant

Aging is a process of becoming irrelevant. It happens over a long time, perhaps a whole lifetime. But it is now, as I am entering my senior years, that it is beginning to become apparent to me, and it is not a happy discovery.

Throughout my career, I have been such a hardworking person, striving to accomplish more every day than was truly possible. I have been motivated by new and more difficult challenges. I have moved up the career ladder, struggling with and then mastering each new set of expectations. I have climbed a mountain and arrived at the top, sweaty, aching and exhausted, only to discover the next mountain beyond that one. This has happened again and again, and has defined my working life. 

Now I have finally reached the last peak. I am stepping away from the career trajectory that I have been on since I went off to my first year of university. It has been hard to let go, and hard to accept that this is it. All that I am going to accomplish in my career has already happened. 

That sounds pathetic. But for me it has been a sad and bitter realization. I have always set very high expectations for myself. Although I never thought I had it in me to become a Piaget or an Einstein, deep in my heart I did think that I was capable of some pretty great achievements. I didn't get there. I have had a good career, and I have made useful contributions. But not great, not outstanding. 

So it took me a long time to decide to step away from my position and my upward striving. Choosing to begin moving towards retirement has meant coming to terms with the fact that this great big career project I have been toiling at, and that I have devoted most of the days of the most productive time of my life to, is over. It's over and there is, as it turns out, not much to show for it. 

Strangely, now that my decision has been made and there are only two and a half months left in my job, I have discovered that I can't even remember what I thought was so important about my job. I wish I could walk away from it tomorrow, and never go back through that door. Yet only six months ago, I was working eleven or twelve hours days most days, and everything I was doing seemed so necessary and critical. Work was so all encompassing that when I broke a bone in my foot last Fall, I couldn't even find time to rest and put my foot up and the bone failed to heal. 

Just as I have been discovering that my work is not so important after all, many of my colleagues and staff members, now that they have found out that I won't be in my role much longer, have begun to treat me as irrelevant. It is understandable. I won't be around to see projects through to completion. There is no point in me starting new things as soon there will be a new boss in my place, and that person will have different ideas and ways of working. In the meantime, they have to form alliances and new ways of working together. My leaving creates a power vacuum and an opportunity for each of them to position themselves differently within the organization. 

I have seen this happen to colleagues before. It is the dead duck administrator phenomenon. The person leaving loses their ability to influence others and to effect change. The people around them experience a period of shifting relationships and alterations in how they do things. I was expecting that it likely would happen to me. 

What I didn't anticipate is how painful it would feel. My closest team leaders are kind and respectful, but although they try not to show it, they no longer really have time for me with all their responsibilities and frenetic work lives. It is strange and sad to realize that most collegial relationships exist to be primarily in service to the maw of work tasks and deadlines. Some other colleagues, the office bullies and the very ambitious seem to be wanting to make sure that I am aware that I didn't matter to the organization anyways. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Ouch, that hurts. To some others, I am now suddenly invisible, and my insights unnecessary. 

And then there are those good, decent colleagues who treat me the same way that they always have. I am so grateful for these people. For them, my knowledge and skills have not evaporated just because I will be leaving soon. And for them, the human relationship supersedes the pragmatic utility of the relationship or the authority of the role. 

Although I have focused this piece on work, I believe that this insight about my own increasing irrelevance will hold for the aging process in general. Once I am no longer of use to them, contributing to society and caught up in the culture of the workplace, I will become irrelevant to most people. As an older person, unless I fight it by finding ways to contribute and to have a voice, I will begin to exist on the margin of society.

Quite a few gloomy thoughts. 

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