The United States Of Age Discrimination

The United States Of Age Discrimination

If you're over age 50 and have been laid off, Lynn Parramore's excellent story about age discrimination will feel all too familiar to you.

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 which 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.

Been there, done that. It's a horrible experience that shakes everything you thought was solid. Age, after all, isn't a disability. It's an asset. The adage that experience balanced with enthusiasm made the best employee has been turned on its head. What you sensed in your gut has now been proven true:

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.”

Being tossed out at such a young age puts people like us at peril. We can't save enough for retirement, our Social Security benefits are impacted, but worst of all, it batters self-esteem to the point where not finding employment becomes an exercise in fighting depression and anxiety as much as anything else.

We can thank good old 'trickle-down' economics for all of this:

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.


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Parramore talks about how the social safety net cuts play in, too.

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.

After reading the article, I wondered whether there were any solutions that made sense. I immediately thought about how unbundling health care from employment would change things. The cost of benefits wouldn't be a consideration in the compensation package, given that most employers only offer 401k plans these days. Removing age-based costs for health insurance would give older workers a boost.

That leaves the question of attitude, which is a far harder one to overcome. The perception that younger workers are the go-getters ignores the value of experience, judgment, and reliability that older workers bring into the mix. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to change anytime soon.

In 2008 I hoped for a WPA-like program where laid-off workers could work in government jobs. That hope was dashed by the stimulus bill and how it was structured, but I still think we need it.

What ideas do you think would work?

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