June Keith’s Key West Blog
February 23, 2009

Last summer I visited with my high school best friend Vicki, who lives in Stamford, Connecticut and trains daily to her upscale job in Manhattan. Vicki was worrying about losing her job. It’s not because she’ll miss the money; she calls herself a frugalista and has surely stashed away millions. No, she’ll miss working. The power and the glory of inhabiting that corner office on the twenty-ninth floor with the view of the Hudson is what sustains my beautiful, brilliant friend. In July, the thought of doing without work was paining her deeply. Now, in February, Vicki is indeed without a job. She was right to be worried.

“If I lose this job my career will essentially be over,” Vicki said last summer. “People don’t hire women of my age for corporate communications jobs.”
I thought she was being irrational. Or dramatic. Or just fashionably hand-wringing in time with the sputtering stock market.

As a woman working in communications in Key West I’ve always had a job, one way or another. In the past decade my earning power has reached what I consider to be dazzling heights. So when the job I’d taken summer leave from was no longer available upon my return in September, I was not terribly worried about finding another. Five months and ten job interviews later, I’m worried. Terribly. Vicki’s comments on the disadvantage of being in ones fifties while seeking a job are haunting me. Why didn’t I take her remarks more seriously?

The crumbling economy has forced our son back into our home, with his freshly earned University of Florida BA in hand. Miguel’s job search proved a whole lot more successful than mine. He landed not one, but two Key West jobs in a couple of days. It all adds up to a somewhat respectable income. His plan, of course, is to save up enough money to move into his own place, just as soon as he possibly can.
For the past six years Miguel has been driving a 1999 Nissan Pathfinder that boasts an impressive 175,000 miles. The car has served him well, and Miguel has treated it with great care -- regular oil changes, new tires, sparkling clean inside and out. But on his birthday, less than a month after graduation, the car suddenly stopped running. A Gainesville mechanic diagnosed the problem: an aging distributor cap and worn wiring. He fixed it, but said “well, considering the car’s age and all those miles . . . hopefully it will be OK. I just can’t make any promises.”

Miguel drove the car from Gainesville to Key West for job interviews without incident. But when he needed to make the 1000 round trip back to Gainesville to pick up his belongings, he asked to use our trusty Toyota. Of course we said OK. We said OK because we don’t have 100 percent faith in that older car, in spite of its almost perfect performance record. We said OK because a 2005 Toyota is younger, zippier and easier on gas than Miguel’s older model. We said yes because when given a choice between newer and older, we went for newer.
This weekend, as I plan yet another Hooverville-inspired dinner with friends living in their camper on Stock Island (we don’t dine out anymore. Too expensive!) Miguel asks if he can use our car for a trip to Miami. We suggest he have his car checked out by a local mechanic, who will evaluate its road-worthiness and relieve Miguel of the nagging doubt he now feels whenever driving his sturdy, but aging, vehicle. Miguel agreed and was cheered to hear back from the mechanic that the car is in great shape and certainly road worthy. “I wouldn’t hesitate to drive it to Miami,” he said.

Still, as Miguel’s mother and a product of an American upbringing, I confess I’d rather see him travel to Miami in the 2005 rather than the 1999 car. It just seems safer. More efficient. Better all around.

Which leads me back to this frustrating business of job hunting. The interviewers, all of whom appear to be young enough to be my offspring rather than future employers, have told me that my resume is impressive. I’ve been working in this town for over 30 years. I know everyone and everyone knows me. My references are sterling. I am rooted and mature. My (actual) children are grown. In spite of all this, I’m not working. In Key West, as in just about everywhere, jobs are at a premium, with hundreds of applicants showing up for entry level positions. How can I, at the grizzly age of 50-something, hope to win out?

There are good reasons why Vicki has made millions while I’ve eked out a meager, though sufficient, living during the same years since high school graduation. Vicki’s got her finger on the pulse of America, the real deal, while I, living the carefree life of the blissfully expatriated, have missed out on recognizing that age discrimination really does exists - even here in Paradise.