May 152013

ice_floesThe New York Times published the results of an AARP study on attitudes toward older workers.  As a Baby Boomer, I read the article anxiously — through my pink rhinestone reading glasses —  and posted it on my Facebook page.   The article, titled, “Older Workers Say Age Bias is Common,” noted that “the AARP study found two-thirds of older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace and most of them say it’s common.”

Are you freaking kidding me?  My friend writer Richard Brown weighed in on my Facebook page with, “I just read about it in Duh Magazine.”

While a majority of the 1502 survey respondents (75%) did not believe age caused their employer to treat them differently from other workers, Jeanne Setzfand of AARP said respondents often felt differently when asked about specific circumstances.  For example, 19 percent said in the study they were denied a job because of age, and nine percent felt they were laid off or fired, or denied access to further training opportunities due to age.

Yup.  Despite all the hyperbole in the past decade about the need for older workers, many Baby Boomers find themselves one toke short of the economic line, Sweet Jesus.

This isn’t what the guidebook promised.

About two months ago after losing a large retainer client for my small business, I applied for a full-time  job at a local company.  The job was almost identical to my first job out of college for a similar business.  The application procedure was online.  When the question, “What year did you graduate from high school,” came on the screen, I should have stopped.

As I scrolled back through the teens, the aughts, the nineties, the eighties, and finally to that mid-point in the seventies that was my graduation year, it occurred to me that this might be a signal from above.  This company really didn’t want someone who knows all the words to “Disco Duck.”  I did not get the job,  nor an interview.  I did get more clients.  Not everyone is so lucky.

This is anecdotal, but it is easy to contrast my own career trajectory with that of my father who worked in the same job for 37 years, with one employer change.  Four years ago I lost a job with a Fortune 100 company that I had for nine years — I was 51 years old.  Was I a poor performer?  I have a closet full of  crystal trophies and wooden plaques that says otherwise. I couldn’t take it too personally; I was accompanied in my departure with 4,000 of my closest friends.  Our company even made The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that night along with several other large companies who eliminated legions of people that day.

It’s the economy, stupid.  I’ve been fortunate to have a marketable skill to make a living wage. Lots of my peers aren’t so lucky.

We were all supposed to surf the age wave to retirement

Joseph F. Coughlin, Ph.D., runs the age lab at MIT. His 2008 paper said,

“Over the next decade the endless stream of young educated workers available over the last 40 years will slow to a trickle. Workers over 55 will grow at a rate of 4 percent per year — 4 times faster than the entire workforce.  Employers must act now to respond to the next generation older worker who demands a new approach to employee-provided services, benefits, technologies and processes to recruit, retain and motivate a productive four-generation workplace.”

Ah, the good old days.  Remember what it was like — way back when — before 2009?   Those born between 1946 and the 1960s (demographers argue over the end year), typically called the Baby Boomers, face different challenges than those who came before — the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation,  and those after, Generation X and Y and the Millennials.

In addition to a potential bias against us, Boomers have other obstacles in our  path, including care-giving challenges for aging parents, financial support for adult children with their own harsh economic  reality, and erosion of wealth with no time to recoup.

  • If Boomers retained jobs during The Great Recession, they may worry about job loss now in this “jobless recovery.”
  • Boomers are fearful of changing jobs or retiring early, afraid of “last in–first out” or being uninsured.
  • Boomers worry about how the Affordable Care Act and changes to Social Security will treat them, as Medicare age has already increased.  For a ’57 special, the full Social Security retirement age is now 66.5, and there are constant calls to up the Medicare age past 65.
  • For female boomers, there’s that tiny issue of gender wage parity.  Did I forget to mention that?  A new study cited by the Washington Post noted that despite the gains of the last three decades, women’s wages are now falling behind farther.

If Mike Brady was an architect, why didn’t he build a bigger house for all those kids?

Every generation has its worries.  Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s pop culture presented the perfect and unbelievable middle class existence, sort of “unreality shows.”  Mom and Dad were white Protestants, Mom with her perfect Toni perm, and Dad seeing the USA in his Chevrolet. All the kids were happy and healthy (except for that time Bobby threw a football at Marcia and broke her nose) Even the dog was partially white.  (What  did happen to Tiger?  He just disappeared.)

Mike Brady was probably heavily invested in the stock market all through the ’80s ride, and naturally the architectural firm had a vested pension plan that rocked.  That house in California probably quadrupled in value.  Mike and Carol sold it before everything tanked.  Mike and Carol are sitting on the porch of their beach house on the Outer Banks, watching the Atlantic lap up on the shore.

But the kids?  No way.  Greg went to medical school and became a family practice doctor.  His practice is so full of Medicare and Medicaid patients that he is working 80 hours a week. When he started his practice, he had one nurse and one receptionist. Now he has a staff of ten just to handle the records.  By 2014, his office has to be entirely on electronic medical records. And at home — one of his kids was busted for pot possession and the other flunked out of community college.

And Marcia.  Marcia. Marcia. Marcia! Poor Marcia lost her job in a corporate shake-up two years ago, and is working two part-time jobs.  Her husband Wally has lung cancer and they don’t have health insurance.  Their oldest son graduated from Old State University with a business major, but he can’t find a job so he’s back in Marcia and Wally’s basement.

Don’t even get me started on the other kids.

While Boomers experience bias in the workplace and have other economic and societal G-forces pressing against us, we push back with our sheer numbers and our activism. Dr. Coughlin, the director of the MIT Age Lab believes in a later document Boomers will have plenty of work, and for many more years.  There’s a glass half-full, glass half-empty situation here.  Boomers will be needed in this economy, but we’ll be working longer:

“What’s the upshot? The future is far from pure doom, although we may have to work longer than in the past few decades. And older adults will continue to lean heavily on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the latter two of which will be affected by the rising price of healthcare.”

Things don’t often end up perfectly in 23 minutes as in those 1970s sitcoms, all resolved and with a laugh.  But don’t count our generation out yet. Many of us were raised by Depression Era parents and we’re returning to our roots, planting gardens and doing with what we have to do.  I’m not planning on heading out on the ice floe just yet.

Think about our Baby Boomer goddess.  After a divorce from Rob Petrie so difficult that she had to change her name, she took a job in a newsroom full of tough newsmen. And in a firing frenzy much like the one I experienced, she got canned.  I’ll take my lead from the Baby Boomer goddess —WGN’s Mary Richards — throw my hat in the air, and shout, “I’m gonna make it after all.”

Published May 15, 2013 at The Broad Side. Please comment there.

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