The Tom Brady of Other Jobs
January 3, 2023 - Francesca Paris for The New York Times
Lilian Thomas Burwell
Photo: Lexey Swall
The Tom Brady of Other Jobs
Meet the people as old in their jobs as Tom Brady is in his: the oldest 1 percent of the work force, across a range of professions.
By Francesca Paris
Dec. 24, 2022
In the National Football League, Tom Brady is a very old man. When he takes the field Sunday night — with his Tampa Bay Buccaneers still hoping to make the postseason — he will be 45.4 years old, six years older than the next-oldest starter in the N.F.L. and the oldest starting quarterback in the league for the seventh season in a row.
In a league where most quarterbacks last about four seasons, Mr. Brady is in his 23rd. It is safe to call him the top 1 percent in terms of age for starting quarterbacks, or even the top 0.1 percent. He is, himself, the end of the distribution.
There are many ways to contemplate Mr. Brady’s age, but the best one may be to look outside the sports arena, comparing him with aging workers still going strong in other professions.
Starting at quarterback at 45 is akin to being a family doctor well into his ninth decade. It’s like being an emergency medical technician — a job that requires running up stairs and lifting bodies on stretchers — at age 70. Or an artist in her 90s, a logger in his 80s or a biologist in her 70s.
We know this because the Census Bureau publishes detailed data about the composition of the American workforce, including age and occupation. Using this information, we set out to find a group of American workers who occupy the same part of the age distribution in their professions as Mr. Brady does in his.
We found nine such people from around the United States, and we asked them why, like Mr. Brady, they can’t seem to quit.
Of course, there is no such thing as a Super Bowl of baking, or an All-Pro team of the country’s logging foremen. There is no Most Valuable Bean Biologist award, though perhaps there should be. We do not claim that these workers are the greatest of all time at what they do. On the other hand, having talked extensively with them, we cannot rule it out.
Meet them, and decide for yourself:
Lilian Burwell recently had an exhibition in New York that drew so much attention that, as she puts it, she’s been making “real money.”
“I can’t keep up with myself anymore!” she said.
At 95, that’s how so many things in her life feel, including her art: still new, after all this time.
“It’s like it comes through me,” she said. “Not from me.”
She knew as a child in New York City during the Great Depression that she had to follow her instinct to create art.
Her parents thought she had lost her mind.
“They said, ‘You can’t make a living like that!’ Especially because of the racial prejudice,” she recalled.
“And I said, ‘But that hasn’t anything to do with it.’”
They compromised. She became an art teacher, then a teacher of art teachers. Each day, she hurried home from work to make her own art, which has since been exhibited from Baltimore to Italy. If creating was magical, teaching might’ve been even more delightful: It was like “throwing a pebble in the water,” with the result — her students’ lives — out of her control.
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