My Twentysomething Overlords

In my fifties, I’m reentering the workforce at entry level.

My manager has purple eyebrows and hair the color of a magenta crayon. 

She runs the ceramics studio where I work, and she keeps it efficient and profitable. In a hip part of town, surrounded by great restaurants, the studio is a fun place to go for a girls’ night out or an “alterna-date” with a significant other. You paint a ceramic piece while sitting in comfortable surroundings, sipping your wine and listening to cool music. 

Aproned studio employees wander about, giving you tips on painting techniques. When you’re done, your masterpiece is whisked away for glazing and kiln firing. Three days later, you get back a glossy, finished-looking creation. 

I am one of the people doing the whisking away. My magenta-haired boss is in her twenties. I’m in my fifties. I work with people I wouldn’t otherwise meet: a roller derby skater, a feminist gaming blogger, a community theater actor, college students. 

After raising three children, I made the decision to go back to work. But I didn’t want to go back to the field of high-tech marketing I’d worked in for 15 years. My absence gave me some perspective. I couldn’t get excited about returning to corporate politics, 60-hour work weeks and the ridiculous hyperbole generated in the marketing of a product.

I wanted to get back to something I loved: art. For the past four years, this has meant working at entry-level jobs, supervised by someone much younger than I am. The pay isn’t great and it’s been a transition. But an easier one than I thought.

My first entry-level job was working as an art docent at a local museum. Most of the staff were in their twenties. The idea of working for someone so much younger scared me. I wasn’t thrilled about starting from scratch. I was concerned that the generational differences would make it hard to relate to my boss. 

There are two things I’ve learned about the millennials I’ve worked for. They communicate very directly and they’re pragmatic. They say what they mean. They’re motivated by getting the job done. They don’t care where a good idea comes from. In my first few months on the job as a docent, my boss discovered my art background and asked me to write docent training materials on landscape composition for an upcoming show. 

Years ago when I was getting my start in the corporate world, my peers and I would never admit we didn’t know something. It made us look bad. We’d throw out a vaguely-worded obfuscation and then run off after a meeting to research the answer to the question we were asked. The refreshing thing I’m finding out about the millennials I’ve worked with is that they’re quicker to acknowledge that they don’t know something.

I’ve been told many times by these young bosses: No question is too stupid. It saves time to ask. And each time I have asked, the answers have been patiently and matter-of-factly explained. No big deal. 

There have been times, however, when I’ve found myself doing very non-corporate tasks as part of my work day. During my training period, my manager showed me how to clean the studio’s bathroom. Step by step, she walked me through the basics of cleaning a toilet. I sighed and told her I knew how to clean a toilet. She told me, in perfect seriousness: But this is how we clean toilets. 

I’ve learned some things during my time serving the twentysomething overlords. Toilet cleaning aside, it hasn’t been a humiliating or frustrating experience. I’m a better person and a better worker for it. I’m getting to know a demographic of people I never encountered in my previous career. And unlike my life in high-tech marketing, I rarely take work home with me. If I do, it involves paint and brushes, and it’s something to look forward to.

When I was hired by the owner of this chain of ceramics studios, we talked about how people connect to art, and about life in general. The owner, who is close to my age, mentioned that she was hoping to bring a new dynamic to the studio. “What I’m looking for is people like you, who are passionate about art and want to get other people excited. We’ve had a lot of young people working here. But now I’d like to see someone who has some life experience, some stability. You’re perfect for this.”

Life experience? Got that. Stability? With a strong marriage and (mostly) independent children, I’m certainly more centered than when I was in my twenties. 

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a movie in which an angel gives the protagonist the chance to relive her life, knowing what she knows now. In my twenties, I’d have balked at taking a job that paid poorly or required anything that looked like manual labor. My first job in college—as a pampered, upper-middle class prima donna—was in food service. I quit in tears after having to clean the salad bar all by myself. 

I know now that it’s not about your title or the money you make. It’s about doing something you enjoy, with people you really like. And it doesn’t matter how old they are. 

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