Retiring to Poverty

“Is there an age limit on those energy efficiency jobs you were talking about, sir?” asked an elderly woman with a heavy, Eastern European-sounding accent.

Assuming that she was inquiring for her grandchild, I told her that those interested in signing up for IBEW Local 18’s Utility Pre-Craft Trainee position must be at least 18 years old, have a valid California driver’s license and be proficient in math and English.

Just as I was about to continue with my tutorial about the academic and physical fitness requirements, the woman interrupted me with another question.

“Do you have any jobs that I can do?”

The wrinkled skin on her face, thin grey hair and her membership in the senior center I was speaking at suggested that she was at least in her mid-sixties. However, I would not be surprised if she was solidly in her seventies.

Regardless of her actual age, this woman from the San Fernando Valley, who was born at a time when public discussions between white women and young black men could lead to a felony conviction, was asking me for a job. A job in the very contemporary “green economy” at that.

In an effort to make sure that my 10½  shoe did not become lodged deep inside my mouth, I  drew heavily on professional organizer etiquette and tried to engage someone who should be more worried about baking cookies for rowdy grandchildren than about being employed at a $16 per hour entry-level utility job.

“Well, ma’am, there is not an age limit for the UPCT program, per se. As long as you can perform physical tasks like climbing high in the air on light poles while carrying heavy equipment,” I said.

At that moment her eyes began tilting slowly towards the floor. Clearly my answer failed to inspire great confidence.

After a period of awkward silence, which seemed to go way beyond the 10 seconds it actually lasted, she picked up her head and explained, “I really need work. Do you have something I can do in the office? Any administrative work?”

Once again I was put in the unenviable position of providing an answer that was certain to upset a woman who had probably survived many serious challenges in the past.

“No ma’am. Not at this time.”

And just like that, she abruptly thanked me for my time and walked away.

If the conversation had ended at that point, I would have spent my one-hour drive back to the office thinking about the fight around Social Security and how the United States is facing the possibility of millions of Baby Boomers working all of their lives just to be able to retire into poverty.

As fate would have it, the conversation wasn’t over. About 10 minutes later, as I was packing my presentation materials into the trunk of my car, the woman began calling out for me.

“Wait, sir. Wait.”

With her arms waving and legs struggling to limp fast enough to get my attention before I exited the parking lot, she eventually got close enough to say her final words.

“Ok. I am willing to apply for the job. I need work.”

In the 10 minutes since walking away from me upset and discouraged, she had decided to set aside pride and considerations of age in her desperation for a decent meal and enough money to pay the rent.

She could not afford to wait for the results of the November presidential election or news from Wall Street announcing that the economy has rebounded. This woman, like so many in our communities, needs a good job now.