Old, New, Newer and Older

I think I have the beginning of an understanding of the stereotype of older people, particularly older workers, as rigid and inflexible. Not saying the stereotype is valid, but that I am seeing in myself some qualities of resistance to change that could, if taken to an extreme, become a rigidity not conducive to continued employment.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is only one expression of a mindset that I recognize can be attributed to older people, older workers, including myself. “Been there, done that, don’t need to do it again to know it doesn’t work well” is another. As is the certitude that having explored a variety of ways to complete a task over years of  trial and error, and settled on the best alternative for myself, I am unlikely to welcome the suggestion that I shift to a different option.

This preference for patterned behavior shows in the sequence with which I complete member assessments for my work, and the place I like to keep the salt shaker by the stove in my kitchen. Not that I can’t do the work in a different order, or find the salt when I need it after my husband has left it where he last used it, but I know I am more efficient and sure of the outcome if many small bits of my daily life follow the consistent, established routine.

I don’t think that’s a preference unique to older people. Though I’ve lived amid accumulations of things in relatively small spaces most of my adult life, I’ve nonetheless kept an order to the piles and know exactly where to lay my hands on whatever I need.  And I periodically go through the stacks and discard or give away. Rather it seems to me that one of the benefits of growing older is having had the time and experience to understand the value in routine, consistency, and a personal sense of order and rightness to how things should be done.

Which isn’t to say that I refuse to change. My life has been mostly about change these past 6-7 years. New work, new marriage, new friendships, new style of cooking, new patterns everywhere I look.  And now a whole new database system being introduced at work that I have embraced to the point of volunteering for the work group implementing the transition and will be serving as one of the “go to” mentors for my coworkers when they have questions about how to function after “go live” in October.

I do see, however, that I am inclined to notice what the new system will not do as well as the old, or to identify likely points of friction for myself in adapting to the new process requirements . This attitude is in contrast to (mostly all much younger than I) management’s persistent, cheer-leading enthusiasm for how the new system will solve all the problems we have had with the old one. I do see advantages to the change – but I also see disadvantages, as well as the load of work for each of us getting our caseload records switched over.

One apparent benefit to the new system is the way it tracks mandatory contacts and schedules for the worker, so that deadlines are much less likely to be missed. For many of my coworkers this structure seems beneficial. Never having had a problem with keeping track of and organizing my workload, to me it felt like objectionable micromanagement until I understood the system well enough to know how to address the “to do” list in a way that gives me back my sense of being the one to control my workload.

The older-person me first perceived the objection. A younger-person me (as I usually experience myself) understood that I needed to learn enough about the new system (cooking style, living arrangements, income sources) to adapt its methods to my needs and also to adapt myself to its structure. Which is what reducing the stress of change is all about. Adaptation.

If living long has taught us anything at all, it must be that life is inevitably about change and adaptation. Failure to change and adapt is, essentially, death. Maybe not instantaneous, but certain.  Most interviews with people who have exceeded normal lifespan expectations include mention of continuing to engage with life interests and learning, continuing to seek new stimulation even if the level or extent of options is reduced by physical frailty.

The most productive workplaces, then – indeed the most productive communities, groups, social organizations – would seem to be those that have recognized the importance of balancing the energy and enthusiasm usually associated with younger people against the wisdom of experience offered by older participants. In simpler societies, even in our U.S. culture not so very long ago, that value was recognized and respected.

Is it just my jaundiced old lady view, or am I accurately seeing yet another exacerbation of polarization in U.S. society, and a deepening divide between young and old, each group believing for example the scare headlines about cost of, loss of, social programs and a resultant mistaken belief that here again we are faced with “us” against “them.”  

My still young mental self, the part of me that embraces change and declares itself ready to adapt as necessary, is seeking to find commonalities between generations, and encourage the valuable cross-pollination of ideas that benefit us all, just as it has been ready to learn the new work database system, simultaneously appreciating its benefits and questioning how we will manage its shortcomings.  My older self can be heard repeating the voice of the 70 something protester against the effort to impose a Muslim ban (and the broader reintroduction of blatant discrimination that many of us fought against in the 60’s and 70’s), “Didn’t think I’d have to be here protesting this yet again.”

Another adage, about those who do not learn from history being condemned to repeat it, comes to mind. Unfortunately, on a societal level, the unpleasant repetition also imposes its negative effects on those who have learned the lessons and done their best to prevent the country from falling back into old ways. Living long enough to see this cycle around and back again becomes both a blessing and a curse, an opportunity to teach but only if there is someone ready to listen and learn.

It has never been different. I am reminded, almost too frequently these days, of the translation of a tablet excavated from the ruins of a Greek village, in which a father lamented the laziness and reluctance to work of his teenage son.  The writer who shared that tidbit of information concluded, as I will here, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I therefore do my best to detach, discern where balance can be found, place  my attention on those things that matter in the long run, and cultivate an attitude of patient acceptance, doing what I can where I see myself able to be effective, and letting the rest slide by.  

“I am here. I am alive. I am trying.That is enough.”

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