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Final Word

West of Eden

Returning to the States after years abroad, a middle-aged professional finds job-seeking tough.

Usually by the time you enter your 50s you have either already made your mark in life or you never will. When I hit 50 I was teaching at a prestigious Japanese university, making the big bucks (or yen, in my case). I was published and well-respected in my field. I was ready to start winding down after a lifetime of hard work. I thought I was finished with serious challenges such as those I had experienced while I was a student, and later as a professor, adapting to one or another Asian culture. So after many years abroad I decided to return to my own country, find a comfortable teaching position, and look forward to eventual retirement in 10 or 15 years.

Returning to the United States, I felt confident in my knowledge, experience, and abilities and assumed I could easily find the right niche. It was some months before I realized that life still had a few tough challenges left for me.

A changed language: Even the names of departments had changed. The personnel offices had mysteriously changed to human resources offices. They were no longer interested in dealing with me personally, but insisted that I apply online. This application process physically separated me from those who could hire me. I increasingly resented being treated as a material resource, not as a person.

On the rare occasions when I visited these human resources offices, I realized that the people who were actively involved in the digitized, depersonalized selection process were considerably younger than I; many had actually majored in this field and had supposedly learned the best ways to identify potentially valuable “resources.” I found myself being scrutinized by people less interested in my knowledge and experience than in my age, despite the many regulations that had been created to remove age as a consideration in employment. Companies and universities, I’ve learned, tend to hire people within the same age-range as those who are doing the hiring.

I can count the number of interviews I’ve been granted on two hands, even though I have applied widely for literally hundreds of different types of jobs, never limiting myself to university positions. In Ithaca, of course, there are two fine institutions of higher learning, and when I visited the campuses and found rather large numbers of people over 50, I was initially encouraged. Later I discovered that almost all of them had been hired when they were young, and they were holding on to their jobs tenaciously.

At least the colleges and universities, both local and out-of-state, were kind enough to send rejection letters; a surprisingly large number of nonprofit organizations don’t even take the time to do so.

Then the magic day happened. Not only did I score a first interview, but a second one. I was offered a position at a nonprofit in Ithaca—a job related to my field—which I took. I enjoyed it and thought my problems were solved, at last.

Don’t get comfortable too soon: But after just a year my boss told me that the New York State funding for the position was ending. I hadn’t realized how lucky I had been to get that position until I entered the fray again. More than a year and a half later, the best I could land were temporary positions. Even those were hard to find, as temp agencies also have their preferences and policies.

Finally, I lucked out again this past fall and was hired by Ithaca College. It’s a full-time, but temporary, job at the bookstore. I survive because I have that and two other part-time jobs. I'm surviving, but I am still looking for the ever-elusive permanent, full-time position.

I’ve learned that although you maybe completely justified in complaining about the state of the job market or current employment practices, it’s truly best to maintain a positive attitude and look at these challenges as a chance for personal development. The experiences I have had since returning to the United States have forced me to look just as deeply at myself as at the “systems” I have faced. They have forced me to get into not only better physical shape, but also a healthier frame of mind. Life doesn’t, perhaps, offer us such opportunities often enough. I lived in an ivory tower (or “ivory pagoda”) for years before I realized this.

And so, even though I have a much different position at Ithaca College than I had expected, I am pretty content. I work hard, physically, but each day I am surrounded by good people, good books, and good opportunities, so I am at last satisfied that my decision to return to my homeland was the right one.

David B. Kelley, Ph.D. taught ESL/EFL at various Asian and American universities for many years, most recently, at the National Hamamatsu University School of Medicine. He has been living in Ithaca for three years. 



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