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50 Is the New 65: Older Americans Are Getting Booted from Their Jobs -- and Denied New Opportunities

Age discrimination could be headed for you, sooner than you think.

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Even academia, traditionally a place where older workers have enjoyed more protection, is becoming rife with age discrimination cases. A recent high-profile case involving long-time administrators at Rutgers University exhibits several of the hallmarks of unsavory practices involving older workers — employees with excellent records suddenly receiving negative reviews, decision-making processes conducted with unusual speed and opacity, and new management.

Millions of dollars are being spent by companies in lawsuits. Meanwhile, businesses lose valuable assets they haven’t properly assessed. According to an overly simplistic model of economics, the economy is supposed to be self-regulating and people are supposed to be paid precisely according to their worth, or what economists call their “marginal productivity.” The problem is, it’s extremely difficult to tell what a worker’s marginal productivity actually is. Many workers perform in teams. An older, experienced worker’s presence may have the effect of upping the game of the younger workers, but this is difficult to measure. In a newsroom, for example, an experienced journalist may bring credibility and reputation to the product, and impart valuable knowledge to newbies, who strive harder when she oversees their work. What happens when you pull out the older worker? The short-term bottom line is cut, but the team suffers and the long-term value of the company may be decreased.

Jan, the erstwhile marketing manager, thinks the U.S. is particularly obtuse when it comes to dealing with older workers. She points to Germany’s actions in the wake of the financial crisis: “The government went and created incentives for industry not to lay people off but to cut hours. Here in America, that didn’t happen.”

Jan and other older workers feel a deep sense of having been contributed to an economy and society that has kicked them to the curb.

“We work hard for years, and how do we benefit in the end? American companies don’t give back to the taxpayers and workers who have made their success possible. We should expect some reciprocity. We should reward companies that don’t outsource. We should improve the social safety net to help people who are unemployed through no fault of their own. There are things that I could be doing to further benefit the community, but if nobody wants to hire me, I don’t see where that’s ultimately my fault. Especially when the economy is producing enough for all if it were distributed fairly.”

We live in an era of planned obsolescence, in which designers deliberately make a thing limited in its useful life. Now this planned obsolescene includes human beings. Is it really an efficient use of our human capital to turn experienced workers into Walmart greeters?

Clearly, we need workplace policies and programs that expand the opportunities for older Americans to extend their labor force participation and continue to contribute their valuable skills and experience. Phased retirement plans in which older workers are kept on as part-time workers or consultants, for example, can benefit both employers and employees. Such plans mitigate the potential loss of knowledge as older workers retire.

The biggest-picture problem in the economy that needs to be addressed has to do with what economists call aggregate demand — the overall demand for goods and services. When people don’t have enough money in their pockets, which happens when economic shocks occur and the government pursues austerity policies, businesses stop hiring and people can’t find jobs or keep the ones they have.

This results in involuntary unemployment; it’s like a game of musical chairs in which the music stops and somebody is going to be left without a place to sit. Unless the government invests in the economy through jobs programs, education, infrastructure-building, and so on, aggregate demand remains low and unemployment persists, which particuarlly impacts the youngest and the oldest workers. When the GOP and many centrist Democrats pursue the self-defeating policies of cutting the social safety net with calls to raise the eligibility age to collect Social Security or kicking people off unemployment, the problem is only worsened.