Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Confusing Job Market for Older Workers

August 21st, 2003 | Paula Brantner

With the economy as it is, we’ve been hearing lots of talk about how tough it is right now for older workers, and how the number of age discrimination complaints and lawsuits have skyrocketed. That’s why a new article, appearing today, was initially perplexing.

The Christian Science Monitor article, called Relaxing Can Wait, as Retirees Flood Job Market, with its accompanying statistic that a record number of Americans – 21 million – age 55 or older are currently in the workforce, initially had me wondering whether things were getting better for older workers. But after reading the article more closely, it’s clear that older workers aren’t having such an easy time of it after all. Employers are essentially saying, you can work here, as long as you’re willing to work in a menial job for peanuts–not exactly the solution for many older workers with decimated retirement funds who need to continue working longer than they had initially planned.

For the last several months, headlines such as this one, Age-Bias Complaints Rising Sharply, have become commonplace. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports, age discrimination complaints have jumped from 14,141 in 1999 to 19,921 in 2002, a 41 percent increase. During the same period, all other types of discrimination complaints to the commission rose by 2 percent.

Experts blame the economy, at least in part. As AARP senior attorney Laurie McCann notes, “Age discrimination doesn’t go away when the economy is going well, but it gets far worse when the economy suffers.” (See Akron Beacon Journal article.) An attorney who represents management in these cases attributes a more benign motive to employers: the upswing in age-discrimination complaints is more a reflection of a bad economy rather than an increase in age discrimination. As another management attorney notes: although companies cannot fire someone on the basis of age, they can fire on the basis of income, “and usually there’s a correlation between the older worker and a higher salary,” said Jack Lord, a labor and employment attorney with Foley & Lardner, who represents companies.

Older workers who are trying to remain competitive for open jobs are even going so far as to cultivate a more youthful appearance. As one reporter noted, “A dicey job market, a growing number of age-discrimination complaints and what many perceive as employers’ preference for younger workers are making some people rethink how they should look while they’re looking for work. Some job seekers fight age discrimination by bringing gym bags to interviews. Others fight discrimination with a knife.” (See Seattle Times article.) One 59-year-old job seeker from New York (who could afford to do so, that is) has had doctors remove the bags under his eyes, give him a fuller head of hair and erase his age spots. article.) Those not so fortunate as to be able to afford plastic surgery are increasingly reliant on less expensive routes to a youthful appearance, such as hair-coloring formula Just for Men, tanning, and gym visits. While these routes to looking younger are always popular for personal reasons as people age, it appears that they may be becoming necessary for continued professional advancement as well.

So with all these age discrimination complaints and people who are trying to look younger to obtain work, we have a story that notes that more older workers than ever remain employed, and also that over the past year, individuals 55 and over are the only age group that has been able to find work. (See Christian Science Monitor article.) Major employers, including Wal-Mart, trumpet the virtues of older workers: as company spokesperson Tom Williams remarks, “The older Americans are very good workers. They turn out to do what you expect. They are very reliable with a work ethic from a different era.” The article discusses the personal situations of several older workers who have left retirement to work again, either because they need additional income, due to downward fluctuations in their retirement investments, or because they miss working on a regular basis. The article paints a very different picture of the older worker than the majority of other articles appearing right now.

However, there’s a very reasonable explanation. The older workers in this article are working for very menial salaries, in jobs that in no way approach the level of responsibility for which their skills and experience would otherwise qualify them. In other words, if you want to be a greeter at Wal-Mart or pass out ID badges at conventions (a job retired airline executive Peter Cosovich characterized as “not terribly challenging,”) then as an older worker you should be able to find a position. As one analyst, Mark Zandi of Economy.com, remarked, “They have in essence taken the jobs that usually go to immigrants and young people.” (Which would also explain why teens have had such a difficult time finding employment this summer. (See WTEV.com article.))

But if you’re an older worker attempting to obtain or retain a challenging position, and can’t afford plastic surgery, or the luxury of retiring early, some companies would rather you just go away and go to work at Wal-Mart. There’s something wrong with that picture, as those who are now in the midst of filing age discrimination complaints understand all too well. It’s one thing if an older employee deliberately chooses a non-stressful position after years of too-demanding employment, but quite another if employers leave older workers with no other choice.

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