One Worker’s Experience Starting in a Difficult Profession at 54

I am an older worker. No denying that. I am 70, employed as a COHN (Certified Occupational Health Nurse) and Workers Compensation Case Manager by a large international technology and manufacturing corporation. Pre-COVID-19, my employer had more than twice its current number of employees; now, we are down to just over half here in the U.S. I don’t really know how many workers remain employed elsewhere, as I am consumed with the health and safety of the workforce right in front of me.

We have learned, we have adapted, we have seen many of our own struggle through the effects of this pandemic. And we have supported one another: The young, new employees with talent and promise, seasoned employees who keep working while in fear for their loved ones, and those who have put their career dreams on hold to keep the doors open and the contracts fulfilled.

We have all supported all—not excluding the older workers who stayed despite the increased personal danger. I believe for many this is because, like me, they love being a part of doing what they do well.

In my position, I have felt respected and valued for my contribution. I came with the desired credentials, references and experience in the areas that were considered essential. But, I still had to overcome the unspoken age question.

I had always wanted to be a nurse, but as college was not possible in my large family, I used my talent for numbers and just went to work. I finally entered nursing school at age 52.

Brand New to Nursing at 54

So, I was a new registered nurse at age 54, and I needed experience and broad-based skills—fast. To counter the age issue, I doubled my pace. I worked 80 hours a week for more than 10 years. I got experience and specialty credentials that made my age seem reasonable, especially considering my abilities and management experience. I was hired for my current position at age 65.

‘My business experience, and my willingness to take on whatever confronts me, has served my employers well.’

I lack the computer skills that most adults have. I started on the Commodore 64, as an adult. This has always been a drawback to my comfort level with tech on the job. However, my business experience, and my willingness to take on whatever confronts me, has served my employers well.

Only a few months into this job, I was called upon to use my accounting, auditing and worker’s compensation record-keeping experience to get my company through an audit covering 24 years of self-insured claims. Some records were missing or incomplete, but I pulled it off, if just.

They gave me an award and a nice bonus. Since then, my “other than medical” knowledge has saved my employer from fines, penalties and a few groundless complaints from disgruntled employees. There have been many times when I have been able to demonstrate my value using various skills and years of experience. And my employer has appreciated that.

Spotting Signs of Ageism

That said, I have received some treatment in the workplace over the years that could be considered textbook examples of ageism. A few comments made out of anger over a denied claim or an employee who failed to meet job requirements. I, however, never considered this to be ageism. My age might have been seen as a vulnerable spot at which to strike when in disagreement. But this is not ageism. It’s just hostility and rudeness without imagination.

I tend to be forgiving of unconscious ageism, while correcting it as effectively as I am able to. Unconscious ageism happens when someone doesn’t realize that their words, attitude or actions could be unfair.

‘Why do you keep starting over with new things? You won’t be able to work long enough to make it worthwhile.’

Continuing my education after my nursing licensure to specialize in occupational health, I was asked: “Why do you keep starting over with new things? You won’t be able to work long enough to make it worthwhile.”

Generally, people have no idea what they just said. They probably even meant it kindly. Others who pretend to be unaware of the effects by claiming they “didn’t mean anything by it” try to shelter under the same umbrella but they are easily discovered. True ageism is hard to hide. It is a pervasive belief that colors their actions, words and decisions.

Two years ago, I suffered an accident in the gym (note: check the credentials of your trainer) which, within days, resulted in two emergency surgeries followed by sepsis, and a substantial aging of my appearance. Since then, some people have been heard to remark that I should never have been working out at my age anyway. Getting hurt was to be expected and my own fault.

Others have been helpful. They worry about how much weight I lift or carry. They schedule meetings on the ground floor when they include me. When I have had a rough week, they will occasionally ask when I intend to follow my husband into retirement and travel the world.

There may be ageism there, but I don’t assume it. I tell them that when they are safe from COVID I will relax and head for my exotic island, so put their masks on.

However, be assured that I know ageism when I see it in supervisor’s reactions when I request accommodations for an older injured worker.

I know it when I hear it in a discussion about placing an older worker in a position when he might decide to quit working and waste the training.

I know it when I am asked for an employee’s birthdate who is up for a lead position. I inquire and I investigate these occurrences. I don’t assume ageism, but I hope I am never guilty of ignoring it just because it isn’t targeting me. This time.