Recent reports claim that skilled men are being overlooked in the 21st century workplace…or is it something else entirely? Christian Lyons looks more deeply into these claims.
The older we get, the more challenges we experience. Or at least that’s how we might perceive them. The mysterious aches and sudden pains, the increase of strange ailments, the shift in our perception of the world around us…
There are also benefits, or maybe we should call them offsets. There is AARP, which gives us discounts at some of the places we might frequent, and some sporting events may have “Senior Day” every once in awhile. Of course, there are always the early-bird dinner specials down at the local restaurant that caters to those of us who don’t mind sitting amidst a sea of white hair, clouds of sweet, often cloying perfume, and enduring the sometimes slow service and the often surreal sounds of a roomful of people slowly (and loudly) chewing their food, audibly sipping their tepid tea, or the somewhat amplified clink and clank of inexpensive silverware.
Perhaps one of the greater challenges, however, are our careers. I come from a blue-collar background, though both my grandfather and father retired with pensions from one of the major auto manufacturers in Detroit as white collar employees, after dedicating the entirety of their careers to the company. It was a different time, when men were expected to stay loyal to the company of origin, spend 30, 35, sometimes 40 years with them. They began their careers in the rank and file, and worked their way up to becoming top performers, retiring with an executive’s pension. There was a deeply ingrained work ethic that is rare to find in the current day workforce.
Recently, the New York Times posted an article on dwindling male participation in our current workforce, stating that men seem to be turning into an endangered species in that respect. Based on a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll published December 11, 2014, the survey harvested information from adult men between the ages of 25-54 (considered in this case to be the prime working age), who were not employed. The men were of varying levels of skill, education, and background. The report focused on three main categories within the unemployed: those who qualify for or claim to have a disability that prevents them from working, those who are able to work but consider themselves unemployed, and those who choose not to re-enter the workforce, and instead consider themselves homemakers.
From this group, the poll determined that there are far more unemployed men considered within the prime working age, and through numerous interviews, provided reasons these men felt they continued to be out of work or unemployable.
One such example was a union electrician who has remained unemployed for four years. He states that he, his wife, and their two children, subsist on his wife’s part-time income and a quickly dwindling inheritance from his late mother. He continues to pay union dues despite the fact that they have not placed him in any position for that amount of time. He is unable to accept non-union jobs due to union rules and bylaws.
Many of the men interviewed are in their early fifties. As am I. When I was laid off from a government job in 2010, I decided – perhaps foolishly – to take some time off and get my bearings before re-entering the workforce. In that time of non-employment, I learned several surprising things. In a workforce class that the city where I lived offers, I learned that when a person reaches the age of fifty, there is a perceived barrier on the part of employers in hiring them. It seems, according to the instructor, that it’s the “magic number” which potential employers are reluctant or choose not to hire beyond. That struck a chord of fear within me because even though I qualified for food assistance and health care, they were not infinite resources, and that I would be required to find a job sooner rather than later. So late in 2010, I began revamping my resume, avoiding any mention of age – achieved by not putting the year I graduated from college on my document, and leaving off any information that might negatively influence an employer’s perception of my skills and background. What I learned was that there is a definite age bias in the minds of employers. My resume got the interviews I wanted, but time and again, I received no follow-up, which I attributed to the fact that I look like what I was, a fifty year old man. No callbacks, in spite of the fact that I was highly qualified and had a college degree in the field in which I was focusing. In the meantime, I accepted short-term contract positions to make ends meet.
I remember a time after my father retired during which, due to the fact that he still had adult children living with him, he was forced to take on work. He continued to receive payment from his pension, but it wasn’t enough. And like I had been taught my entire life, we do what we have to in order to survive. In that spirit, he took a job as a cashier in a local department store, for barely more than minimum wage. There was no lamenting that he was unemployed or unemployable. There was no swallowing of male pride or questioning whether he could mentally endure performing menial labor. No gnashing of teeth at being on public display despite his executive background. He did what needed to be done to support his family. His wife also took a job at a local fast-food establishment.
After my parents divorced, my mother married a man who quit school in the eighth grade so he could work to support his ailing mother. He entered the workforce at fourteen or fifteen, and worked until his death. With children to support, he did what he had to do. In addition to his machinist job, he took on the role of newspaper delivery person early in the mornings, sleeping, then getting up to work the swing shift down at the machine shop. Mother took in daycare children from the neighborhood to make extra cash. For our part, we were expected to help support the family through age-appropriate jobs, so at the age of eight, I landed my first paper route, and the money I earned went into a pool that we used to buy school clothes, food, and other necessities for my thirteen brothers and sisters.
Throughout my career, I never possessed a “not my job” mentality. I often volunteered for projects that didn’t necessarily fall under my job description and was happy to learn something new. Every single instance of my career positively influenced the choices I made later. When I was laid off, I didn’t stumble. I made an assessment of my skills, the job market, and found ways in which I could earn enough of a living to survive until I found the next full-time step in my career trajectory. I didn’t place any limitations on where I would move to, how much I might make, or what type of work I would or would not accept. There were a few times in which I felt defeated, ready to throw in the towel. On occasion, I thought, Why should I bust my back trying to survive when there are government assistance programs that I could avail myself of and could skate by on?
What I got from the poll that the NY Times performed is that the work ethic, tenacity, and can-do attitude has given way to apathy and a heightened sense of entitlement. People are claiming that they are being continually demeaned or marginalized for various reasons.
“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” –Mark Twain
We seem to have grown complacent in our attitudes, a far cry from previous generations’ attitude and drive. We have become a nation that demands that someone take care of us, as if we had never become adults and were waiting for our parents to spoon-feed us. Rather than striving to create a fulfilling and meaningful life for ourselves, we give up too easily and decide to let the government become our nursemaids. We claim that our masculinity is in jeopardy if we’re faced with working a minimum wage job for awhile.
In the four years since I was laid off, I have worked in fast food, as a handyman for elderly neighbors, as a typist for individuals who needed documents created, made resumes, scooped dog poop, babysat, dog-sat…whatever I could do. During that time, I didn’t say no to any reasonable offer for work. And in that way, managed to survive, all the while sending out resumes for a position in my actual field of experience. Sometimes it felt impossible. I didn’t want to sell one more order of pasta to a customer, all the while smiling pleasantly and wishing them a good day. I understand that we make decisions for ourselves, and then must stand up and accept responsibility for them. In short…I never lost sight of my goal. I drew on the work ethic that was ingrained in me from the time I was a boy, and leaned on that when I felt like quitting. As recently as last week, I accepted a high-paying position with a company whom I had courted for many weeks. I found a way.
The responses provided and used by the NY Times and its affiliate agencies smacks of disingenuousness, as if we are being forced to consider a new breed of men: the newly disenfranchised and marginalized male in the work force. The survey provides information to support their thesis, but may not accurately reflect the reality of the underlying causes of this alleged trend. Are men truly being overlooked or ignored for younger, more virile men? Perhaps, but it’s not because that’s what they’re actively seeking out, but rather due to the fact that older men seem to have given up, or decided they didn’t want to have to work so hard to find a position that pays 50% less than what they’re used to making, even temporarily, as if it decreases our value in society or our own self-worth.
We find a way. Or we convince ourselves that there are barriers we’re unable to overcome, and become unwilling to do what is needed to support our families or ourselves. This is not about the male as working class dog. This is about us as humans, surviving however we can. This isn’t about the traditional perception of man as the breadwinner any longer. It’s about not giving up, lying down, or quitting before our time. It’s about being resourceful, and having the self-respect to understand that it doesn’t affect our masculinity to take a job that we deem as “beneath” us. In fact, this isn’t about “being a man” at all.
In this day and age, it’s about being an adult, and making adult decisions, both men and women. We’re the only ones holding us back.
We are all survivors, in our own ways.
Photo: Rohan Phillips/Flickr