By Margaret White
At the age of 65, I became redundant. Just like that. I awoke one day, a respected and self-respecting professional with valued expertise and experience. I went to bed redundant. Superfluous, according to my old Oxford dictionary. On the scrap heap, according to my own inner voice.
Self-pity is unhelpful but there is a difference, psychologically, between retiring in your own time to enjoy a well-earned rest and suddenly being told that you are redundant.
The rest of my life yawned before me like a dark, very empty cavern, into which I promptly fell. My two colleagues, also older women and redundant, fell into holes of their own. We were all too hurt and humiliated to offer each other much consolation.
Our workplace was being restructured and we had to apply for the positions we had all held for years. After interviews, psychometric tests and a wait of many nail-biting months, we were told that none of us had the capabilities needed to perform the role.
After 18 years in the job? What capabilities did I lack? They couldn’t say. The role was changing, and the new role description had not yet been finalised. Lose/lose. Possibly even unlawful, but we couldn’t risk our redundancy payments to find out and our union wasn’t encouraging.
We weren’t tired or out of date. We were passionate about our work and had maintained our professional expertise, often at our own expense. Our clients rewarded us with thanks and glowing reports. But, as one Board member reportedly said: ‘Some people have just been around too long’.
Redundant is a harsh word. A friend who put his hand up for a voluntary redundancy told me how shocked he was when his offer was accepted. He hadn’t expected that his services would be so readily dispensed with!
Redundancy is also much harder for older people to bounce back from. Ageism may well have been the reason we were made redundant and it poses an almost insurmountable barrier to finding a new job. None of us has been successful, so far.
I wasn’t planning to retire. My work was challenging, enjoyable and meaningful. Unfortunately, this meant I wasn’t prepared. I still can’t decide if I’m retired or unemployed. Everything I do still feels like killing time or working on a hobby. Only paid employment, using my hard-won skills and qualifications, would make me feel like a productive member of society.
I’ll get there, I’m sure. Keeping one eye on the job market, I’ll regain my self-respect, find meaning and purpose in life and build an identity for myself that doesn’t depend on the job I do. I know I must stay socially engaged and keep physically and mentally active, but knowing and doing are poles apart when depression saps your energy.
I know I can contribute in other ways and I will, in time. I was an endurance athlete until my late 50s and sometimes wondered why I was putting myself through so much effort. Now I know. I was training for times like this. I’ll dig deeper and eventually, painfully, I’ll find the strength to succeed. .
Age discrimination is, of course, unlawful. There is legal action you can take, but it’s hard for individuals who have just taken a confidence-sapping blow to stand up for themselves, and difficult to prove. It’s systemic, cultural change we need.
Ageism is entrenched in Australian culture and will take time to eradicate. Our generation of over 60s has a unique opportunity to contribute to change. We’re the largest cohort of older people ever. We’re also the fittest and best educated.
We deserve respect and we must demand it. We can stand up for ourselves and each other and when we’re struggling, dig deep. We’re all much stronger than we know.