Covid: Who will sharpen the pencils?

Pre-Covid when I was heading up an NGO in New Haven Connecticut, where Yale intern talent was abundant, there was a tradition. The person selected to keep sharp the container of pencils on my desk, a seemingly menial task, was in fact a person identified as one possessing a talent, sometimes obvious sometimes not so obvious, worthy of recognition and nurturing. This tradition emerged after earlier trials picking the most junior person for the task, ended up being perceived as demeaning to the designee. The new approach, which remained in place as long as I steered the ship, converted what was perceived as a humiliation into a much coveted honor. Not entirely unintentionally, it also gave me the opportunity to have one-on-one interaction with an intern–a challenge in our busy go-get ’em world.

This revised approach to what I thought was a good exercise in humility grew out of a sense of something I had learned in my own career–which was that leading an organization was easiest when one had somewhere on the resume, held the most junior job that often involved humdrum tasks. It was only then as a leader, that I felt a person could truly have a properly developed sense of empathy, appreciate youthful eagerness to climb the ladder and sympathize with a young person’s sense of underutilization of their abundant intelligence. In the current workplace climate keeping the bosses pencils sharp seemed a good way to encourage humility–a lesson hard to learn or be taught in ivy league corridors. The pencil sharpener designation, in stark contrast to being viewed as a humiliation, became a coveted honor– able to generate just a little disappointment to those not selected for the task. Not accidentally, the sharpening exercise often led to a chance to sit down and have interesting exchanges with young wonderfully interesting students. Conversations about life, goals and direction often ensued.

In the Covid and post-Covid world, where many of us are now working remotely, the humility lesson gets taught twice. For those of us responsible for sharpening our bosses pencils so many years ago, we are left again to our own unassisted devices, to keep our own pencils sharp.

So if you find yourself on a teams or zoom call with me, and think I’ve gone silent, consider this: I may be, behind that mute button, sans interns, sharpening my HB#2 Staedtlers wondering when I shall ever again have the opportunity to share life’s lessons during an encounter disguised as a pencil sharpening session.

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Because getting old just wasn’t enough of a challenge…

Accepting the fact that at a certain time in your life it becomes clear that the world’s focus is not on your generation, but the generations behind you, itself gives you pause. The older generation before you, has likely passed on, leaving the “senior” in you to fend for itself in a world that does not consider the challenges you face among the most pressing. Those challenges include downsizing, retiring, working, losing a partner, to name a few. Then along comes a pandemic in the form of the COVID-corona-Whuhan-China-callitwhatyouwish virus. For some, that Southern winter refuge you fled to, to shield you from northern winters, is the source of an unfathomable chasm that with quarantines and travel suspension, prevents you from visits with family and children–something you took quite for granted when you moved South.

What are some challenges and choices facing the 60+ generation? For starters, downsizing–managing a large home, possibly the “family home,” which was not too difficult with one or two full time jobs, and a houseful of children, but sitting in that same house now, possibly alone, with the ever-growing tax bill funding children you don’t have in schools they don’t attend, or plowing of streets you don’t use in winter, is one. Just as you decide that downsizing might be the way to go–you realize that grandchildren are on the horizon –ok, something you were able to project and think about–but what you didn’t think about was that a pandemic might mean creating pods and bubbles where you, your children and their children might need to quarantine under one roof, if you are to have any semblance of intimate contact with them. Downsizing, now doesn’t seem like such a good idea. But, if not now, when or ever? Then there’s the furniture, which you’ve kept in the family for years, but in which your children now have no interest. The British maxim–“we don’t buy furniture, we inherit it” decidedly doesn’t work in America. Finally, with or without a houseful of family, travel and gatherings for many seniors is currently considered ill advised…which begs the question: Is retiring from the job that gives you the only regular human contact you have, albeit on zoom and teams, a good idea? Now? Soon? Or ever?

What is clear, from a very unscientific polling is that there just isn’t enough “out there” to lend support, advice, counsel for the over-60 crowd to simplify, clarify or weigh the available choices or the pros and cons of the options we face. Unlike the choices we may have made in our younger years, these choices need to stick–and stick well. There is neither energy, time nor inclination for do-overs. As unpleasant as the concept seems, and as verboten as it is to talk of it, time isn’t on our side. The overriding hope needs to be that, whatever the choice, it won’t be one we regret–no do-overs on the eighteenth tee.

These are only a few of the emotional/intellectual quagmires many seniors find themselves considering these days–downsize, move, retire? How about you? And, wouldn’t it be nice, if someone, just someone or maybe a pair of people, say a pair that dabbled in law and real estate for forty plus years, devoted themselves to creating a platform that managed to support all of us as we try to maneuver this maze we call life-over-sixty in 2020? Stay tuned.

Covid-19: Coming: Survival Guide for Seniors in the New Electronic Frontier

Social scholars say that we are hardwired to connect with others. So imagine the genius of an enemy which thrives and depends upon, with laser focus, that hardwiring to destroy us. Then imagine that it tar2020-03-29_20-05-37gets the wisest and most sage among us, leaving only the young –Darwinian masterminding   creating a world that sans seniors, becomes a feeding ground for other new viruses that are far less age discriminatory when it comes to hosts. If viruses are in it for the “long game”–it’s a win for the virus.

Two months ago, I suggested to a young niece that my generation needed more influencers and I hoped to maybe become one. I am after all, that “certain age” as Simone de Beauvoir called it, working full-time,  taking in less exercise than I should but possibly more than many of my peers, monitoring retirement investments, downsizing real estate and, lest I forget, not completely unfamiliar with Match, Silver Singles and Zoosk. She, the twenty-something niece, suggested that being an influencer in the digital age, with a following consisting of people over 65 that unlike her generation didn’t live and die by the mobile phone, didn’t hold a lot of promise.

At the time, neither she nor I knew about COVID19–the catalyst that is destined to change everyone’s reality–the viral introducer to a generation of seniors that the time to learn to use the phone, facetime, zoom, skype had come. The catalyst that gave a large piece of the population the comfort of working from home, no highways, traffic jams, public transport or daily commute–the source of inspiration for maybe more than a few seniors that “retirement” by necessity might need postponing, that banking needed to be online, along with shopping and other contactless activity. Suddenly, reaching my audience was less daunting than originally anticipated–it was a hill that Covid-19 climbed for an entire generation.

Why are there no seniors influencing? We have  workplace issues. We face challenges. We take comfort in the same peer-to-peer sharing that have benefited the generations behind us. We have credit cards. We shop. We buy and sell houses. We invest. We marry, we divorce. We get widowed, we marry again, and again. We own cars and grow more than flowers in gardens.

An influencer is someone who builds a reputation for knowledge and expertise on a specific topic. I consider myself fairly expert on being a senior, eligible for early morning grocery shopping in the self-quarantining era. I’m going to bet that more of my peers than ever, are now connected.  In an age that promises to be more digitized than ever, those of us who succeed in escaping the scourge of COVID-19 will suffer the residual loss of being left behind in the age of the electronic frontier unless we board that train now. Let’s do this.