A Senior Among Juniors: My Return to Work at 60
'The New Old Me' author on taking a job with 'the Bellas'
(This article is adapted from The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention by Meredith Maran.)
Google Maps tells me it’s 20 minutes from my brand-new apartment in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, to my brand-new office on Hollywood and Vine. I leave home 90 minutes before I’m due, just to be extra-sure I arrive early, confident and caffeinated. The stakes are high. Today is my first day at my first job in more than 20 years.
I can’t afford to blow it. Within the past six months (since I turned 60), I’ve lost nearly everything in my once-stable life, starting with my beautiful 16-year marriage. My best friend died of cancer. My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And my financial investment broker “Madoff” with my life savings.
Leaving Home and Old Friends for L.A.
So when I got the offer to become the editorial director of Bellissima, a $50-million-and-growing Los Angeles-based fashion company, I didn’t hesitate. I left my San Francisco life, home and friends of 25 years and headed for L.A.
I’d been doing some freelance copywriting for Bellissima for the past couple of years and liked the “Bellas” I’d worked with. I’ve also excelled at this work before and knew I could do it again. Most of all, I liked — needed — the paycheck and the benefits.
At the Bellissima office, I report to Norma, VP of “Talent Development.” Norma, a busty, vivacious redhead, jumps up from her desk and grabs me in a hug. “Welcome, Meredith,” she bubbles. “We’re so happy you’re here! Isabel isn’t here this week, but I’ll introduce you to everyone else.”
I follow Norma through Bellissima headquarters, a renovated button factory that’s now a showcase of stylish un-improvements — exposed brick walls, exposed rusty beams, exposed galvanized pipes, exposed stair treads, exposed concrete floors. Skylights, industrial casement windows and vintage light fixtures make it almost as bright inside as out. Ethnic art hangs on every vertical surface — paintings, textiles, garments, masks of many lands.
“The lunchroom.” Norma waves glossy crimson fingernails at a big, open space with a family-sized fridge, two microwaves, a purified water dispenser, a juicer, and an elaborate gleaming espresso machine.
Meeting 'the Bellas'
Norma walks me through the departments: Design, Marketing, Customer Service, Sales, Finance. Actual offices line the perimeter of the building; the worker bees sit at spiffy modern workstations, each with a desk, an Aeron chair, a landline phone and a big-screen iMac. Most of the “team members” — “Bellas” in the company vernacular — seem to be using their own cell phones.
The Bellas are a good-looking bunch, glossy-haired and sparkly-eyed, with bright, white straight-toothed smiles. I figure I’m 10 to 20 years older than most of their parents and — gulp — the same age as the younger Bellas’ grandmothers.
“The kids,” as I immediately name them, are relaxed and gracious, greeting me as if Bellissima was their company and hiring me was their decision. For all I know, it was. Isabel calls her company “an employee-centered workplace.” Maybe it’s true.
What Made the Job Less Than Perfect
The whole groovy package would make Bellissima my perfect reentry job, except for one tiny thing (my co-workers) and one medium-sized thing (me).
I haven’t worked in a bra or a waistband in 22 years, when both bra and waistband were much smaller. Most of the Bellas are so young, so lean and so drop-dead gorgeous, the place looks more like a modeling agency waiting room than a fashion company’s office.
As I’m being introduced to a sweet girl named Marguerite — tall, willowy, with wavy auburn hair to her wasp waist — I catch a reflection of the two of us in a full-length mirror. Mortified, I resolve to avoid repeating that experience.
With each “Bella” I meet, my belly looks bigger to me; my wrinkles deeper; my hair, makeup and first-day-of-work outfit lamer. By the time Norma leaves me with Heather — my thirtysomething, Bellissima-minidress-and-Gucci-bootie-wearing boss — I’m hoping my employee benefit package includes unlimited plastic surgery and a burial plot.
I’m aware that this is a thing, and I’m aware that the thing is bigger than I am.
Not Ready for Retirement
Ten thousand Americans turn 65 every day. Thanks to modern medicine, our massive consumption of kale and the “we’re here to redefine everything” attitude of those of us who came of age in the 1960s, “retirement” isn’t on our iCals.
While we’re clutching at our careers with cold, brittle hands, the “kids” are gamboling past us. In workplaces everywhere, people my age are getting pats on the (aching) back and performance reviews from people Heather’s age.
I should be used to it. In the past 20 years, I’ve suddenly found myself older than my doctors, my editors, my therapists, my mortgage broker and most of my friends.
What Was I Thinking?
But this is different. I’ll be coming to this office five days a week every week, until I’m too old to shuffle in here anymore. What was I thinking, moving to a city famous for worshiping wealth and beauty and youth?
I follow Heather to my office. It’s a spacious, light-flooded room with curved glass-brick walls, midcentury-modern bookshelves, a gray flannel easy chair, and a gray melamine desk.
“Take your time settling in,” Heather says. “I’ll circle back to you in a bit.”
I sink into my lumbar-supported Aeron chair and start opening drawers to see what my 26-year-old predecessor left behind. There’s only one file drawer in my desk, and that drawer contains no files — just a beat-up copy of the employee handbook and a dented box of Kleenex. Looks like “the paperless office” (a Jetsons’ fantasy when I last had a job) has become a Flintstones reality.
My First Big Bellissima Meeting
That afternoon, I attend my first big Bellissima meeting, a planning session for New York Fashion Week. Members of the Finance, Marketing, Product Development, Design, and Creative “teams” are sitting around an enormous walnut burl table, swiveling lazily on cushy chairs. I’m here because I’ll be writing the press releases, the copy for the booth displays and Isabel’s speech for the show.
The vibe is mellow, a group of friends hanging out, snacking on wasabi seaweed, drinking grass-green juices from the fresh-pressed juicery down the street and water from mason jars, dissecting last night’s Game of Thrones. “It’s a perfect second-date show,” says Jade, the company’s social media director. “I watched it with this guy I met on Tinder. I learned a lot about him, fast.”
“Hey, guys. What’s up?” Isabel’s image comes to us nearly life-sized from the huge flat-screen on the wall.
The people around the table greet their boss casually, affectionately. “What are you wearing, Is?” the design director asks, squinting at the screen. “Is that dress ours?”
Isabel grins. “It will be. As soon as Jim figures out how to get it made for a margin we can love.”
“Or as soon as Isabel figures out how to get it made in a less politically-correct fabric we can actually afford,” says Jim, the Finance VP.
Speaking in Code for 'Old Women'
I perk up. Making products that are good for the bottom line and good for the world might be a new dilemma for Bellissima, but it’s a time-honored one for me. Isabel sought me out because I consulted with Ben & Jerry’s and other socially responsible companies during the 1980s, the heyday of “doing well by doing good.”
“Hey, Meredith.” Isabel flashes me a brilliant smile from the screen. “So happy you’re here.” She directs her gaze at the group. “Meredith did that awesome direct-mail campaign I told you about. We’re lucky to have her.”
“I remember reading about that campaign in AdWeek,” Heather says. “How long ago was that again?”
Was that a dig? “1993. But I’ve done a few other campaigns since then,” I say, hoping I don’t sound as idiotic as I feel.
“You know we’re going to be going after the Eileen Fisher market,” Isabel says. “I’m hoping Meredith will help us with that. Let’s give our new Bella an awesome welcome.”
Ouch. “Eileen Fisher market” is code for “old women,” and everyone in this room knows it. “Happy to be here,” I say, over a limp smattering of applause.
What My Colleagues Know About Me
Eight months later, my father dies. When I come back to work after a week away, my coworkers are so kind, so compassionate, so concerned, it makes me realize how different that is from our normal interactions. Until now, not one of them had asked me a single question about myself. None of them knew anything about me. Now, all they know about me is that my father is dead.
That seems strange, since I’ve given my coworkers so much to wonder about.
Why was a 60-year-old woman available to move to L.A. on a moment’s notice? Why is she entering the workforce when others her age are leaving it? Why did she arrive wearing a wedding ring, which quickly disappeared? Is she single, married, dating, divorced? Where did she find a place to live in this wildly expensive city? Does she have friends or family here?
For a while, I attributed my colleagues’ lack of interest to the kind of polite restraint that’s practiced by people who are not, as I am, New Yorkers. Then I thought they were being respectful, waiting for me to initiate exchanges more personal than those revolving around their Paleo diets and makeup tips. But each attempt at clue-dropping left me standing in the empty lunchroom with a frozen smile on my face.
The Irrelevant One
Finally, now, I get it: My personal life is of no interest to my coworkers because my age makes me irrelevant to them. Just as my friends and I vowed never to trust anyone over 30 when we were the Bellas’ age, they have no reason to want me following them around. Their Facebook shenanigans; their club-hopping and Urban Outfitters shopping expeditions; their Tinder swiping and holiday pilgrimages to their parents’ houses, they will never include me.
The fact that I’m “young at heart” and “young-looking for my age?” Irrelevant. My eagerness to plug into “youth culture” by learning my coworkers’ tastes in music, clothes, diets, boyfriends? Irrelevant. Possibly also annoying.
On the other hand, the feminist complaint about the invisibility of older women — something I couldn’t imagine ever applying to me? Highly relevant.
I’m simply not on the radar of my younger coworkers. I wish it didn’t matter to me. I wish it didn’t make me feel even more lonely and disoriented in my new, Plan-B life. But it does.
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