Call It What You Want – Seems Like Ageism to Me

Ageism: prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a person’s age.

For 50 years, it has been illegal under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA, for employers to treat older workers differently than younger ones with only a few exceptions, such as when a job requires great stamina or quick reflexes.

But an analysis of data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism, and the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, seems to suggest that employers flirt with violations of ADEA.

Since 1992, the study has followed a nationally representative sample of about 20,000 people from the time they turn 50 through the rest of their lives. Through 2016, the analysis found that between the time older workers enter the study and when they leave paid employment, 56 percent are laid off at least once or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily. To make matters worse, only one in 10 of these workers ever again earns as much as they did before their employment setbacks.

Seems like ageism to me.

The study looked at workers who enter their 50s with stable, full-time jobs and who’ve been with the same employer for at least five years — those who HRS data and other economic studies show are least likely to encounter employment problems, and only considered separations that resulted in at least six months of unemployment or at least a 50 percent drop in earnings from pre-separation levels.

Richard Johnson, an Urban Institute economist and veteran scholar of the older labor force who worked on the analysis states, “for the majority of older Americans, working after 50 is considerably riskier and more turbulent than we previously thought.”

“These findings tell us that a sizable percentage, possibly a majority, of workers who hold career jobs in their 50s will get pushed out of those jobs on their way to retirement,” says Gary Burtless, a labor economist with the Brookings Institution. That’s not the voluntary path to retirement that most economists assume, and many Americans expect.

For almost two decades now, when HRS respondents who’ve recently retired have been asked whether their retirements were “something you wanted to do or something you felt forced into,” those who’ve answered they were forced or partially forced has risen steadily. The number of respondents saying this has grown from 33 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2014.

And despite the ADEA, Federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years have reacted to employers’ requests for more flexibility in remaking their workforces to meet global competition by widening the reach of the ADEA’s exceptions and restricting the law’s protections.

In a story earlier this year, ProPublica described how IBM had forced out more than 20,000 U.S. workers aged 40 and over in just the past five years in order to, in the words of one internal company planning document, “correct seniority mix.”

Correct seniority mix? Seems like ageism to me.

And this disruption in work experienced by older workers is about the same regardless of their income, education, geography or industry. Some 58 percent of those with high school educations who reach their 50s working steadily in long-term jobs subsequently face a damaging layoff or other involuntary separation; 55 percent of those with college or graduate degrees experience similar job losses.

“The expectation that American workers decide when they want to retire is no longer realistic for a significant number of older workers who are pushed out before they are ready to retire,” says Carl Van Horn, a public policy professor and director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

HRS data shows that laid-off workers in their 50s and beyond are more apt than those in their 30s or 40s to be unemployed for long periods and land poorer subsequent jobs. “Older workers don’t lose their jobs any more frequently than younger ones,” said Princeton labor economist Henry Farber, “but when they do, they’re substantially less likely to be re-employed.”

The ADEA bars employers from putting age requirements in help-wanted ads, but as job searches have moved online, companies have found other ways to target or exclude applicants by age. Last year, ProPublica and The New York Times reported that employers were using platforms like Facebook to micro-target jobs ads to younger users. Companies also digitally scour resumes for age indicators, including graduation dates.

Once again, seems like ageism to me.

A half-century ago, in a report that led to enactment of the ADEA, then-U.S. Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz said that half of all private-sector job ads at the time explicitly barred anyone over the age of 55 from applying and a quarter barred anyone over 45., adding that “there is no harsher verdict in most men’s lives than someone else’s judgment that they are no longer worth their keep.” It is then, when the answer at the hiring gate is ‘You’re too old,’ that a man turns away … finding nothing to look backwards to with pride [or] forward to with hope.”

So while the ADEA has good intentions, and seems to have had some positive effects, many employers still seem to practice age discrimination. As a result, people often lose one of the most precious items they have – hope.

It was Mahatma Ghandi who said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

Older workers are often viewed as the workforce’s weakest members; a company’s greatness should be measured by how they treat such employees.

 

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