by Roger Wright
Uncle Frankie, at 75, in his crisp red tie and blue jacket, wearing his Semper Fi Ring and sitting in the tan vinyl booth just after the breakfast rush at the “Beef and Brandy” Restaurant on State Street in Chicago:
His reflection in the mirrored wall picks up the wisps of grey hair. Strangers, like the four men in the next booth who could be his grandkids, would guess Frankie was 60. They’d never say 75. Or believe that he hadn’t had a steady job in eight years.
And the young men would be beyond shocked if they looked up to see that Frankie was discreetly watching them in the mirrored wall and listening to every word they said.
Frankie, with 40 years as a chief financial officer for two of the world’s top consumer product goods firms, had been let go in a venture capital hostile takeover just about the time the great recession hit full stride. He was 67 years old and the new owners wanted “fresh blood.” Or put another way, Frankie was simply too old.
That was, of course, never said out loud. And there was a modest settlement, which Frankie, being nobody’s fool, saw as being the best he could get from Governor Industries and their armies of lawyers and accountants.
So he signed the piece of paper. Tried not to think about the family medical bills, the crumbling foundation of his house and the car he had finally bought, first one in 17 years, which started vibrating the moment he drove it off the lot.
He signed the settlement and then, the very next day, put on his jacket and tie, walked with briefcase in hand to the elevated train stop, got on and then off in the Chicago Loop. Then, instead of going to a plant or an office, he went to the “Beef and Brandy,” drank coffee and tried to hang on to his self-respect.
What else was he going to do? Send resumes to the internet? Sue someone for ageism? Retire?
He didn’t want to stop working. OK, truth told, he couldn’t afford to stop working. But all that really wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was the crumbling decay of what it meant to not think anymore, to not have a purpose, to have no goal except getting through the day. To shudder when he thought about questions like, “What if I had to work for someone ¼ my age?”
This morning he listened to the boys in the next booth talk about capital construction for a new consumer product, some new kind of tea drink. How they would finance the new plant. The nuts and bolts of making the money work for them.
The kids, Frankie knew, had the financing all wrong.
Frankie, weathered by the experience of facing every kind of challenge, was that rare breed of CFO that could see beyond the numbers. The CFO who could seamlessly blend the story told by the financials with the heart and soul of the operation. Frankie didn’t just add and subtract. He painted pictures and told stories with the numbers. He knew the difference between the scorecard and the game.
So when he heard the four youngsters start down a path that would lead to trouble, he really wanted to say something. But of course he couldn’t. They’d just think “crazy old man.” And besides, he had to get going.
As he rose from the booth, he heard an old Louis Prima song playing in the background of the restaurant. “Oh, Marie … oh, Marie … in your heart, I’m longing to be.” As he hummed along, he saw one of the young men smile in recognition of the song.
And then he saw the ring. On the hand of that young man was a ring that reflected a lifetime of pride and service. A United States Marine Corps Semper Fi ring. Just like Uncle Frankie’s.
That ring started the conversation. An hour later, Uncle Frankie, having been invited to pull up a chair, had a new job: CFO
Nice Story … But what about the ageism?
Ageism is real. It’s horrific. And it hurts all of us. Sometimes it’s buried so deep, we don’t even see its there. But it is. Often it’s fed by the fact that getting a job is rarely a rational process.
Overcoming ageism doesn’t come with a list of instructions in an owner’s manual. Overcoming ageism comes from building one’s own individual path. This path is centered on The Five — principles, not instructions:
1. Telling your story. Uncle Frankie did it in that hour.
2. Adding Music. Being a fit for the job. Showing you know the intangibles of what it takes to deliver. It started with a mutual recognition of the song and ring. Then on to the business.
3. Communitize. Being part of the same community, club, family or in this case, The Marine Corps.
4. Solving A Mystery. The financial solutions Uncle Frankie delivered.
5. Practicing Stewardship. Showing you both understand and can deliver on a mission and purpose larger than yourself. In this case, making the new business work.
The roots of ageism are powerful. So are The Five Principles. Making them your own can be unbelievably hard. Much harder than “feel good” how-to lists.
What’s at the heart of overcoming ageism?
Bringing The Five Principles alive and making them your own. Making them yours.
Roger Wright, a consultant to Forward Chicago, is the author of “Finding Work When There Are No Jobs.”