Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Big Six Oh

What is it about turning sixty? I and a number of my friends will reach this dreaded age this year. It seems to be a particularly tough birthday for several of us. I have already passed several significant birthdays: 
50 (half a century!); 
40 (middle age!); 
39 (last year to be a thirty-something); 
30 (joining the over-thirty crowd, definitely not cool); 
21 (a legal adult, everywhere in North America)
19 (voting and and drinking age, in British Columbia)
16 (not that sweet)
But 60 is different somehow. 

I was just in Vancouver, where I got together with a dear friend for an early birthday celebration. She turns 60 next week, and is not at all happy about it. I asked her why she was finding this birthday to be such a difficult one. She said, "because it means I am f*ing old!"

I asked Rob, who turned sixty a few years ago, whether he had found it hard to turn sixty. He said, "no, not at all." The reason why, he explained, was that the collapse of his first marriage a number of years earlier created such a huge and traumatizing change in his life that a little thing like a particular birthday meant nothing in comparison. 

I also have had a traumatizing a life-altering experience in my past, but it hasn't softenened the big six-oh transition for me. Rob is a pretty mellow person, not given to hand-wringing and introspection. He lives each day as it comes along. That might be why he doesn't stress about birthdays. 

I think that the reason that 60 (and similarly 65) is difficult for many of us is that it marks a time of significant transition in our lives. For me, from age 25 to now, I have been focused on having and raising my kids, and on my career. Much else has taken a backseat to those two dominating priorities. Although it has not been a straight, smooth path, nevertheless my focus on these two things has been consistent. But now I am having to make significant decisions about my life path, and indeed, about the rest of my life.

Suddenly, as I turn 60, I have discovered that my focus and priorities are changing. My youngest has graduated from university, and although he has lived with us for this past year, he is starting his first career-related job and soon things will be changing for him. 

I have made the decision to resign from my administrative role and to take up a different, less stressful and less time-intensive position at my place of work. As well, two months from now, I will be taking a lengthy leave before transitioning into that other role. This marks a significant change in my career "ladder-climbing." In essence, I have decided that I will not be pursuing further career progression. This represents a large attitudinal shift from my aims over the last 35 years. 

As I move toward stepping down from my role and the leave from work, my mind is turning to the next step, actual retirement. I am thinking about all the projects and life goals that I have been deferring for so long, because my work has dominated so much of my time and attention, not to mention also raising a family. When am I going to finish writing those novels, or really get into painting, if not soon? There isn't that much time left.

Breaking my foot last Fall has made me realize that deferring some things for much longer may mean that they will never happen. For example, my foot, although healed, is still giving me a lot of pain. Does this mean that my days of backpacking and long hikes is over? Speaking of that, when am I going to go heliskiing, river rafting, and to Machu Pichu? Sixty is a wake up call. 

I have a friend whose long and successful career is coming to an end, not because she was ready to retire but because a reorganization of her workplace now has made retirement seem to be the most appealing option for her. I have another friend who just turned sixty who has sold her longtime business, has begun travelling to many interesting parts of the world, and has started writing a book. Yet another friend who is turning 60 has made the decision to resign from her part-time teaching position and is trying to decide when to step away from her clinical practice to begin full retirement. 

While I muse about retirement, time keeps marching on. My grandchildren are having birthdays, and I live far away from them. They will only be toddlers for a short time. Our friends are growing older, and some are losing their health, and some have died. 

Sixty is just a number. But in our decimal system based on ten, it marks a decade. The decade of one's sixties is the decade of the culmination of career, leaving the work world, and taking stock of life. In turning sixty, one enters the late stage of life, a chance to review what it means to have a good life, and a final chance to decide whether there are still some other components or tasks yet to be completed in our individual projects of making a meaningful life. 

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.