Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday Soapbox: Ageism

Yesterday I went to a local retailer to order some glasses. The lady who greeted me was nice, but she asked, "Do you need progressive lenses?"

Ah, I'm no longer getting that, "Oh, but you look too young to have grown kids!" Now I'm getting the "Depends are on aisle 5" looks.

Must be the gray in my hair, which is there, of course, because I had to stop coloring due to allergies. If that happened to every woman, we'd have a bunch of women running around with dark hair and rashes! But seriously, in our society, gray is bad. Gray could cost you your chance at a job.

I told the salesperson that I was not yet in progressive lenses. She had about 10 years on me, but her hair was still dark all the way to the roots; not that it hid her age, mind you. The skin does tend to tell on us ladies. We don't always age as gracefully as our male counterparts, but I digress.

While she processed my insurance, we chatted about work. She thought it was amazing that I could work from home, and like most people, she said she wished she could do the same. "Oh but I can't leave this job," she said. "I might not be able to get another one. I'm in my fifties, you know."

Well isn't that the saddest, truest thing you've ever heard? In a country full of baby boomers who never wanted to admit we could grow old, we have created a society that can't stand old people - to the point they won't hire them! Add to this the fact that these boomers (the oldest of whom turned 60 last year) didn't have 401k plans through their employers until late in the last century, who thought that Social Security would be enough, along with their "life savings" to carry them into retirement. Unlike their parents, who had a pension to go along with Social Security if they stayed at their factory job long enough, boomers have no pensions, for the most part (some companies still provide them, but most do not). My parents didn't have a pension, since my dad was a contractor and my mom was a stay at home mom until she divorced my dad when she was 49. I got to see first-hand what Social Security is worth: a home in the projects and government cheese.

Without going any further into the monetary aspect (which could fill another Sunday Soapbox article), let's consider the plight of the baby boomers. Little to nothing in a 401k or pension plan. Even if they socked it away as fast as they could when the plans became available, an iffy stock market could have taken it all away again. Facing retirement without enough cash, they realize they must keep working. Maybe they feel pretty good and are as sharp in the mind as ever (after all Hillary turned 60 last year and is going great guns), can they actually find a job or keep the one they have?

Companies have ways of dealing with people they no longer want on the payroll. Perhaps the insurance premiums are higher on older workers; I don't know. Have you heard of re-orgs? Have you heard of RIFs (reduction in force)? Have you heard of layoffs? Time after time I've seen older workers "let go" in one form or another. Either they are encouraged to take early retirement (which always sounds good, but then again, we figure we can get another job if we need one), or they are part of a layoff. Either way, it isn't ageism legally. No one could prove that the company let a worker go because of his or her age. Usually there is a mixture of ages and genders. In fact, a company I worked for who offered early retirements and exit packages because of troubled times sent around a list of genders and ages of each employee (no names included) who was leaving, presumably so we would know that they weren't discriminating. Hmm. What is that about the guilty dog barking the loudest?

A couple of relatives of mine have had trouble finding work. The resumes look good. The work history and references are solid. The mind and the skills are still there enough to ace the phone interviews. And then suddenly...interest dies after the face-to-face interview. You can almost hear the interviewer going, " didn't say you were old."

What a sad state of affairs this is. Young people are looking at McCain and saying,"Ugh! He's too old to be president." (I'm trying to be fair here and mention political candidates of both parties!) These same young people are looking at Obama and saying, "Yes! We can identify with him. His hair isn't gray and he looks young, like us!" I've heard some people talk about Clinton, saying she's a dried up old woman or that she'll make bad decisions while PMS'ing (umm...folks? We're more likely that she'll suffer from sleep deprivation due to night sweats!)

I don't think that 60 is "dried up" anymore. She has far more energy at her age than I have at mine. What I mean is, age is just a number. She is in good health. McCain appears to be in good health. Obama is in good health. They are all good speakers, energetic campaigners, and capable candidates, no matter their age. It's probably a good thing they didn't have to have a face-to-face interview with a 30-something in order to get on the campaign trail. They might be seen as liabilities.

I've heard that we're facing shortages of workers in certain sectors in our workforce: IT, nursing, almost every other healthcare job, teaching, etc. Well, my afore-mentioned relatives work in IT, but their age seems to be a problem. Why? I don't get it.

What's going to happen when all of these folks become a burden on the Social Security system, not because they want to be but because they are forced into it by the ageist culture in which we live? What will happen is that what is left of Social Security will be gone. Those who are discriminating against the aging population will find that they have less security going into their golden years than they had before. Will they understand that they helped create the situation? Probably not.

Think about that next time you hear that we have fewer people than ever paying into the Social Security fund. That might not be the case if we didn't force our older folks into a retirement they don't want.

Peace - D


Daryl E said...

Color me silver AND 60. Its not the insurance is higher for those in my age bracket, its that if you've been with a company that pays benefits to employees once they are 'vested' which is usually 5 or more years of employment .. its cost more than hiring someone new .. younger .. to whom you dont have to pay the same benefits or salary .. assuming that you get a salary increase every 12-18 mos. AND it is only to our own benefits if we make sure we have IRAs and 401K plans .. so that retirement doesnt rely on only Social Security. I dont plan on retiring any time soon .. I love my insane job and plan on working as long as I can .. I would go nuts if I didnt have somewhere to go every day .. I was once unemployed for 4 months and I hated every single minute of free time .. I joined a gym (and I detest exercise other than walking) so I could get out of the house for an hour or two ..I walked all over taking photos every nice day .. but I missed the structure of a job .. and the insanity of the pressure of my kind of work. I am a project coordinator/office manager/jill of all trades .. and so far all I have gotten is compliments on my silver hair .. oh and I do wear/have progessive lenses! this is not to say your post doesnt make excellent points .. its just not always that way.......Daryl

Momma said...

Daryl - I commend you on loving your work and sticking with it! The relatives I referred to lost their jobs during layoffs. Nothing has been the same since. Though they keep applying and interviewing, it's been difficult. No one seems to want to hire them. They use words like "overqualified" in reference to their applications after interviewing them. I also agree that we should fund our retirement, but they had far less time to do so. They are now living on the retirement they did set aside and don't have enough to last. I guess what I'm saying is that the world has changed and we have more people than ever who are still willing and able to work well into their 70s, but we need to have employers willing to hire them.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response!

Peace - D

Daryl E said...

I know about being considered over qualified .. when I was in the process of changing 'fields' I ran into that a lot .. it was more about $$ than age .. but I do agree that often there is ageism involved .. I dont know where your relatives live but in larger cities there are more opportunities and I know... I know I am very lucky to live in NYC it makes a big difference on many levels.

I hope things get better for them .. and that this whole issue lessens when the economy improves .. so much to hope for this coming November.


Baroness von Bloggenschtern said...

Momma: I know all about this scenario - my auntie in California had to work until this last year, in order to get her mortgage paid off. she retired at the ripe age of - 85!!

Fortunately for her, she was a medical stenographer who could work from home. But she was worried for her job when they introduced a new software program, and she had no computer experience. Again - luckily - she had enough seniority and experience that they were willing to train her. I know that this is not always the case.

What a pity that youthful employers can't see the wisdom of hiring solid, older employees.

Josie said...

Momma, here in Canada we can actually sue if there is any hint of ageism in the job. And employers are very careful about that. Having said that, I work for the government, and we have trouble keeping the younger women in their jobs, because they're all having babies. I don't know how many maternity leaves I have had to try and fill. And the other day we hired a temp who is an unbelievably good worker. She is so good, all the departments are fighting to get her, and she is 68 years old. She can work circles around the women half her age. So, you're very right. Age does not mean anything, and I think Hillary is not only really bright, but she looks great. Sixty, shmixty!!! Women in their 50s and 60s (and even 70s) - and men too - have tons to offer, and anyone who doesn't hire them is losing out.

Maggie May said...

People can sue here for ageism but there are ways and means of getting rid of someone in a different disguise. I am working over 65 in 2 ordinary little jobs, but its true I wouldn't get new work if I left & tried for more.
We have DIY stores here in England that take on suitable older people. They make a habit of it as they are reliable & have life experience.
When I was young women stayed at home to look after their families & then branched out into part time work. There were no occupational pensions, nor for self employed workers & our family fell into that category!

San said...

There simply isn't sufficient respect for the wisdom of elders in our country, and the reluctance to hire older people, who tend to be the most appreciative of having a job, the most responsible, the most experienced, etc. just doesn't make sense. But a lot about our culture doesn't make sense.

Thank you for climbing up on the soapbox. I am applauding wildly. Why don't you run for office?

david mcmahon said...

Speak up, lassie - I can't hear ye. And until they bring me my telescope, I can't read ye eithe!