Age is nothing but a number. An ever increasing number

12 03 2012

When I was fresh out of a pineapple under the sea social work school, I was 25 years old. I worked for two years after undergrad as a child wrangler coordinator of an elementary after school program, so I wasn’t one of those brutally obnoxious 23 year olds, but I was close. I had also always been a year younger than everyone in my grade, either due to being a genius, or born on January 1st. My brother and most of my cousins are older than I am. In short, I’ve been rather accustomed to being one of the youngest, wherever I go, for quite some time now.

But of course, things change.

There’s a lot of turnover in social work, particularly in the field of child welfare. I mentioned recently that I’ve noticed that everyone in child welfare seems to have either been in the field for fewer than three years, or more than thirty. There’s not much in between. This isn’t terribly surprising. It’s a high burnout field. People get into it when they’re young and energetic. A lot of the time, that doesn’t last. For some, work in child welfare is like me every year the day after the New York City marathon. I think, why don’t I do that? It seems amazing and like lots of fun. Then I run for three miles and remember that I don’t really care for it.

Then there are others who just never seem to leave. Many are talented, and dedicated to the field. They rise within the agency and make changes from the top. Some just stick around long enough and wind up getting promoted because…seniority, or something. No one really knows.

I’m coming up on three years, so I guess we’ll find out which category I fall into.

My first year as an intern, I worked with homebound senior citizens. These are the people we ominously call the “oldest old.” 85 and up, for the most part. They looked at fresh-faced little SJ as though a fetus had been sent to their home. They asked how old I was and reminded me to wear a coat.

The next year, I began working with families. It seemed that all we talked about in supervision and in class was the fact that I, like many of my student contemporaries, appeared to be about 12. Would this be insulting or troubling to families? I mean, who is this kid, telling me how to raise my kids? Would the teens walk all over me because I’m obviously not a real grown up?

For the most part, it was never a terrible issue with clients. Most people seemed willing to take me on merit. What held me back was not my age, but my inexperience. I lacked confidence in my abilities, because you know, I didn’t have much in the way of abilities yet. (By the way, students–it’s fine. Everyone has to learn, and there’s no other way.)

It was, however, a bit of an issue for coworkers, at times. I had a supervisor who condescendingly told me she was too nervous to send me out on home visits, because I looked like I could be her daughter. Cool, I’ll just put my feet up, I guess. People felt free to ask how old I was, which I think is a little rude, unless you’re trying to set that person up on a playdate. My thoughts and opinions, or plans for my career, were often met with a laugh and an, “Oh, you’ll see how it is after a few years!” Will I? Tell me how it will be, soothsayer, I wish to know the future too!

Like I said, though, things change.

I’m 28 now. I’ve always looked young, but I’m old enough now that people who think I’m a teenager are either under eight, over 80, or a little deranged. Last week I did a school visit, and was scolded for not having my school ID. I patiently (or something) explained that I was a social worker, not a student, and was allowed up to the office after a minimally invasive metal detector wanding. (Imagine going through the equivalent of airport security every day, just to go to high school. Ugh.) When I got up to the guidance counselor’s office, I was immediately asked if I was Miguel’s mom.

I have no idea who Miguel is, but I know that he’s not my child, and that he’s a high school student. Meaning that it seemed that I had aged about twenty years on the staircase.

I’m not the youngest around the office anymore. There is a crop of 24 and 25 year olds starting up, and I’m suddenly in the strange position of being considered one of the seasoned workers. (Mmm, paprika!) These new workers are more idealistic and energetic than me. They might even be cuter than me…I’m pretty sure they’re not cuter than me. But it’s weird to no longer have that, hey, I’m the youthful new gal thing to fall back on. I’m legit now. People come to me with questions about paperwork and benefits, and very often I know the answers. They come to me for advice when they’re stuck with a client. The assumption there is that I know what I’m doing, which can be a little scary to live up to.

While I’m still mistaken for a teen or a parent during school visits, at some point it will only be parent. And that will make sense. Then I’ll know I’ve made it.

But I’m pretty sure I will freak the fuck out when I turn 30.

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15 responses

12 03 2012
crazysocialworker

What, may I ask, do you generally tell clients when they ask you how old you are? And to the endless question (from clients) of whether or not you have kids? I’m in the same boat you are, and although I know that I ‘should’ refuse to answer these questions, I tend to have a hard time with that. Just wondered how you handle it!

12 03 2012
socialjerk

I think they sometimes draw too much of a hard line on social work school about not answering personal questions. For me, it depends on the situation. If it’s a kid (under 10) I usually just answer, because they’re being age appropriately curious. If a parent is challenging me by asking how old I am, if I have kids, what I would do if that situation came up, I usually explain that my situation doesn’t matter, because we’re here to focus on them. (You know, everyone’s situation is different, let’s try to work on yours instead of hypotheticals.) My teen girls will get very curious about my life, so I usually explain to them that I don’t want to take up their time by going on and on about myself. If I’m not sure of an adult’s motivation in asking, I usually try to be direct and ask if there’s a reason they’re wondering that.

I really try not to get defensive when clients assume anything about me-age, race, class, experience, whatever, and keep the focus on what brought us all to the table.

Hope that was helpful, though I suspect it was not πŸ™‚ It’s a tricky issue.

12 03 2012
Nazaniel

“My thoughts and opinions, or plans for my career, were often me with a laugh and an, β€œOh, you’l see how it is after a few years!” ”

This seems to fairly constant across most fields, I think, and it drives me absolutely crazy. Because of your age, you must know exactly nothing of use and your opinions are to be completely discounted. I have a feeling that it is worse for women as well – people seem to listen more to the ideas of “ambitious” and “promising” young men.

Not to be too cynical, but I think there’s a sweet spot for women of around 27-35. Younger than that, and no one will listen to you because you are too young to have any valid experience (apparently); older than that and you’re clearly out of touch. The sweet spot is also tainted with everyone waiting for you to get pregnant and leave though, so even that is not the wonderful time of acceptance that it could otherwise be.

I love your blog by the way – I work in a completely different field (experience design) but I appreciate the insight into how things work in your job and your posts are always well-written, interesting and thought-provoking.

13 03 2012
socialjerk

My supervisor says she felt like no one took her seriously until she turned 30. So I’m assuming it should be happening soon for me! (As for everyone waiting for the pregnancy, I recently had a stomach virus and was eating saltines at my desk. Oh, the questions I got…)

And thank you so much! That’s so nice to hear.

12 03 2012
theyearofwhatif

Ha! Just wait until you turn 36!!! Yikers.

13 03 2012
socialjerk

Ahhhh! πŸ™‚

I never wanted to be a crazy woman in a stupid movie freaking out about a particular age, but as I get older, I understand it a little more. (Not that this is any excuse for romantic comedies, though.)

12 03 2012
Sofia

ah, i feel like in two years i could (or hope to) write this post. i too had a first year internship with homebound seniors and have always looked ridiculously young. now i’m the new young thing at my agency, energetic, only slightly jaded, and full of questions. to be honest, i’m looking forward to being one of the workers that the new guys (er, gals in this field) come to – being relatively comfortable (or as much as one can be in social work) in your position is a much more at-ease state, i’d like to think. but yeah, turning 30 is no bueno. watch out for that.

13 03 2012
socialjerk

It’s great to start to feel like you know what you’re doing, in any job. And it’s scary how long that can often take (again, in any job.) Good luck in your journey to being a jaded old social worker like myself πŸ™‚

13 03 2012
survivorsofcps

Not to be rude but having your own kids does make a difference. Once you have stayed up all night with a sick child you know how demanding parenting can be.
Also, people tell me the better social workers usually do have children. Also they know what its like to sacrifice for the sake of their kids. i may be a xfoster but i am also a parent and sometimes being a parent can give some social workers a better perspective.

13 03 2012
Emily

This. Blog. Post. Is. Amazing!! I’m in my final semester getting a BSW degree and I enjoyed reading this so much! I’m book marking your blog and I want to personally thank you for being snarky AND in a social service profession. My hat is off to you!

14 03 2012
socialjerk

Thank you! Isn’t it nice to find you’re not the only one? πŸ™‚ Good luck with the rest of your degree!

14 03 2012
Jeni

I get the whole “Well you don’t have kids so you can’t really have anything to say about how my child behaves” nonsense. Kind of reminds me of the whole “You’re too young” thing. I’m finally not the youngest person where I work so I’m enjoying myself this year. Even though I’m the new guy in town it’s nice to be in the age mix. πŸ˜€

14 03 2012
socialjerk

Not feeling like everyone’s tagalong little sister at work is a pretty sweet feeling! πŸ™‚

19 03 2012
Nectarine

I’m 28 (29 this year and looking forward to turning 30 because I am going to have a big ridiculous birthday party so THERE!) so I can relate. There have been times tho when I’ve enjoyed the look on client’s faces when they say “you’ll understand when you have children someday” and I tell them I have an 8 year old.
Self-disclosure is okay in moderation and when you’re gut tells you it’s appropriate.

23 03 2012
sarah

I work with adults and I spent age 27-29 telling people “almost 30” when they asked how old I was. I was glad to turn 30!

I think for people in their 40s and 50s who have had a succession of 25 year old case workers over the past 20+ years, it must be weird to keep getting new ones. I only stayed 2 years… the work was grueling and not something most people can deal with for a long time if they have other options.

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