50 Is the New 65: Older Americans Are Getting Booted from Their Jobs and Denied New Opportunities
Editor's note: This article is part of Lynn Parramore's ongoing AlterNet series on job insecurity and part of the New Economic Dialogue Project.
In every corner of America, millions of people are terrified of losing their jobs and falling into financial ruin. Men and women with impressive professional achievements and credentials are being let go, nudged out and pushed aside. They are pounding the pavement and scouring the job sites, but find themselves turned away even for the most basic retail jobs. Not because they aren’t competent. Not because they lack skills. But simply because they have a gray hair or two.
This is not just a story of people in their 60s or 70s. Workers as young as 50 are shocked to find themselves suddenly tossed onto the employment rubbish heap, just when they felt on top of their game. They’re feeling stressed, angry and betrayed by a society that has benefited greatly from their contributions.
As the global population grows older, age discrimination is on the rise. It could be headed for you, much sooner than you think.
“I Got Thrown Away”
Jan, a marketing executive from Southern California, is just 51, and she has already learned the heartbreak and frustration of age-related job insecurity.
She was flying high as the head of marketing for a large financial planning firm when she was laid off in 2009 at the age of 47. The recession had done its damage, and her firm had to let some people go — mostly the youngest and oldest employees. Jan understood why the layoff happened, as sad as it was. Her firm gave her great recommendations and kept her on as a consultant for a year.
But she was not prepared for what happened when she tried to find another job.
First Jan applied for positions similar to her previous employment at banks and other financial institutions. Nothing. Keeping upbeat, she widened the net, applying for all marketing and communications jobs advertised in a 40-mile radius of her home. Still nada. Finally, she started applying for retail jobs and was shocked to find that she could not even land these. Jan got an interview at Barnes & Noble, but the store didn’t call her back, and she wondered if all the young people on the floor had something to do with it. She tried a local bridal shop, thinking that she was the same age as the mothers of the brides and would be a good fit. They didn’t hire her. Even Target turned her down for a job as a store clerk. No reason was given. That’s when she started to panic.
“It’s been difficult on my family,” Jan says. “My husband was a lawyer, but he has become disabled. My daughter felt embarrassed that I couldn’t find a job, and I’ve had to explain to her why she shouldn’t be. I had to explain to her that I was not ashamed, that I was mad. I had done everything I was supposed to do. I had gone to college, then to grad school. I worked very hard and I had a lot of success. Then I got thrown away.”
In researching this article, I heard many stories like Jan’s, from Americans from all walks of life. A commercial fisherman with 30 years experience from Tucson, Arizona has sent out dozens of applications, but gets zero bites. An Ohio IT professional with over 30 years experience was let go after 15 years at his company, and now finds himself working in a bottom-tier customer service position with 20-year-olds.
These are downwardly mobile Americans whose dreams of stability after decades of a job well done and a comfortable retirement are vanishing before their eyes.
Bigotry That Knows No Boundaries
Age discrimination can stalk you whether you’re black or white, poor or well off, male or female, gay or straight. It’s something we’re all likely to face if we stick around long enough. In the job market, it impacts our very survival and our sense of ourselves in the world.
New research shows that age discrimination may be even more common than we thought and more prevalent than other forms of bias, like ethnic discrimination. According to a study published in the Journal of Age and Ageing, one third of British people in their 50s and above reported age discrimination, a figure that surprised researchers. From poorer service in restaurants to ill treatment in hospitals to outright harassment, people found themselves increasingly disrespected as they aged.
Lead researcher Isla Rippon of University College London told Reuters that such day-to-day experiences impact physical and mental health: “Frequent perceived discrimination may be a chronic source of stress and build up over time, leading to social withdrawal and reluctance to go to the doctor.”
When it comes to financial stress, older Americans say that job insecurity is their number-one concern, according to a recent survey. Many people over 50 find themselves hanging on to their jobs for dear life, aware that they are perceived as obsolete and not as valuable as younger workers, despite their vast experience and institutional knowledge. According to a 2013 AARP survey report, "more than one-third of older workers are not confident that they would find another job right away without having to take a pay cut or move (37%). Of those, about one in five (19%) say the reason they are not confident is due to age discrimination and 21 percent identify age limitations, such as feeling they are 'too old' or limited in some way because of their age."
Ashton Applewhite blogs about aging and ageism at ThisChairRocks.com. She has much to say about the myths concerning older workers that permeate our culture: that people over 50 are rigid, trapped in their jobs, take too many sick days, or can’t cope with technology. The most common myth is that older workers are all the same. Applewhite's research shows that nothing could be further from the truth.
“The hallmark of later life is heterogeneity,” explains Applewhite. “Think about it. We become less alike with every day that passes. A group of 20-year-olds is much more alike than a group of 60-year-olds. People age at different rates. The stereotypes don’t fit. Some older people are wise, some aren’t. Geriatricians have a saying: If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old. You can’t neatly categorize older people.”
“It is true that younger workers can go faster,” concedes Applewhite. “Older workers go more slowly, but they’re more accurate. Age confers patience and coping skills, the ability to handle stress.”
According to Applewhite, the perception that older workers can’t handle physically demanding tasks is often outdated. She points out that chronological age is generally not an indicator of capacity, even for pilots or firefighters. Older, experienced workers actually hurt themselves less on the job.
The idea that after a certain age you can’t do demanding tasks is just a myth, says Applewhite, noting that even during slavery, the market price for slaves remained high well into their 70s, because slave owners knew they could do valuable work.
The stereotype that older workers can’t adjust to technology is similarly overstated, she says, noting that they are usually more than capable of learning new technical skills, particularly if those skills have relevance to their work experience.
Applewhite’s research shows that the most productive and effective teams in the workplace are mixed-age groups. “Experience plus freshness just makes sense,” she says. “A team with different generational perspectives has new energy, new possibilities for collaboration.”
“People think older people are trapped in their jobs,” says Applewhite. “But in reality, most older workers work because they enjoy their jobs. Shouldn’t people have the choice — the right to continue to work if they want to? Nobody wants to be economically dependent.” The trouble comes when older workers are shunted aside or can’t find decent jobs, and then face a shredded social safety net. They become dependent, and that dependency just reinforces the myth that they are a burden. Who would want to be a burden by choice?
Older workers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they do manage to stay employed, they are accused of taking jobs away from younger people. Yet according to a recent Pew report, that’s just another myth.
The idea that younger and older workers are engaged in a zero-sum game for a fixed number of jobs is called the “lump-of-labor” theory. According the Pew report, this theory did not hold true in the Great Recession. On the contrary, a one-percentage point increase in Baby Boomer employment had an insignificant impact on youth employment rates, unemployment rates, or hours worked. An increase in the Boomer employment rate actually correlated to a 0.28 percent increase in youth’s hourly wage rate.
Far from taking jobs away from younger people, the employment of older workers seems to benefit them.
Age Discrimination Is Costly
There was a time when American workers and their employers had fair contracts. The longer you worked for a company, the more you were paid, and when you retired you could expect a pension. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 made it unlawful for employers to discriminate against workers and certain job applicants 40 and over based on age.
Things started to change in the 1980s, when trends like deregulation, outsourcing and union-busting started to give employers more power to do with workers as they pleased. Business schools began to preach the misguided gospel of shareholder value maximization, which held that instead of investing in the skills and training of employees, companies should pursue layoffs and cost-cutting in the interest of short-term profits — moves that perversely tend to negatively impact the long-term health of the firm.
It turns out that unbridled capitalism has a bias against older workers. Bosses started to focus more on younger workers because they are cheaper and didn’t expect things like pensions. They could also be more easily intimidated.
By 1993, a Supreme Court decision involving a 62-year-old employee discharged from Hazen Paper Company just weeks before he qualified for full pension benefits gave employers the right to look at factors associated with employee age, like the length of service with the company, in deciding whether or not to fire workers without fear of violating the law. Older workers were now much easier targets for employers.
Today, age discrimination charges are on the rise, which often happens during recessions: 22,857 workers filed age-related complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012 compared to just 16,548 in 2006. These cases involve well-known companies like Whole Foods, NBC, AT&T, and Ruby Tuesday.
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 obsolescence 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.
Telling people to accept lower paying jobs may make sense for individuals, but in the economy as a whole, as Keynesian economists constantly remind us, wage cuts just add to the shortfall in demand.
In the end, we want an economy that allows everyone to work who is able to do so, and provides a robust social safety net for those who can't. Our current system is unsustainable, and age discrimination, which strikes even those who are still in their prime, is quickly becoming an economic, social and public health disaster for the 21st century.