Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Disappearing Dinosaurs: A Discussion of Ageism

"You are obsolete." Anyone of a certain age is bound to remember the Twilight Zone episode in which Burgess Meredith was confronted with that harsh (and arbitrary) determination. It seems to confront more and more of us these days. Ageism in America is alive and well, my friends. 

Ageism and Global Warming have a lot in common. Though generally recognized as existing, no one believes they actually do. Since it's been below zero for a solid week here in the Northeast, I'll leave the global warming debate to others, but Ageism is real. How can I say that with any conviction? I'm living proof. After age 50, your employment worth is next to nil. Stay with me as I explain.

Many workers fortunate to have succeeded in a career are the victims of their own success. More so than ever before, companies have discovered that they can shed the experienced (read 50 year old) worker earning at the higher end of the pay scale and replace him with 2 or 3 younger, inexperienced workers and pay less in total compensation. It's a trade-off too many employers are willing to make to enhance the bottom line. Wondering why wage growth has been stagnant despite a supposed robust economy with low unemployment and low inflation? Corporate America has figured out that if they shed the full-time, higher compensated, experienced workers and replace them with 2 or 3 part-time, under-compensated workers they save a bundle not just in payroll but all the benefit-associated costs as well. That dynamic isn't about to change despite the recently passed tax reform that is hyped as a job creator. Corporations like profits. The tax reforms will simply be a windfall to the bottom line. 

Naysayers (mostly employers) will claim ageism doesn't really exist. Yet it's the 50 year old worker bearing the brunt of corporate cost cutting measures. The odd thing is that these employees are also typically the best contributors. But the trade-off on that hasn't negatively impacted the bottom line so it persists. 

The press continues to spread the news that the aging boomer population has created an employment shortage. Interesting. That sounds like there aren't enough workers, right? Yet wage growth remains stagnant? Something's awry. Forget the demographics - companies need less workers! Automation is rapidly expediting the demise of the human workforce. Expect that to accelerate in coming years with the advent of AI and robotics, offsetting the demographic component altogether.

Back to us old folks. Typically, we're educated and have tangible skills. Our work ethic alone should be something of an asset in securing work. But it's a Catch-22. The model is to hire young, inexperienced workers on the cheap. So older workers are consistently viewed as costing too much or being overqualified. 

I'll use myself as an example. I'm approaching 54. I spent my career being a top contributor for one company. My skills are solid. Out of the blue, I was let go. No fanfare. Thanks, but don't come in tomorrow. In an instant, I was suddenly Burgess Meredith. 

I'm resilient and I knew I had talent so I wasn't worried. I never believed in ageism. That was an excuse older workers who were under-performing used to explain being let go. I discovered how wrong I was when I hit the unemployment line for the first time in my life. My experience would now prove to be a hindrance. I was stunned. That was a year and a half ago. 

I've been fortunate. My work ethic apparently shows through so I've had success landing some blue-collar work. Hard, physically demanding work totally outside what would be considered in my wheelhouse. Work that at my age I ought to avoid. So now I work 1000 times harder, for twice as long, to earn less than half of what I earned previously. Nevertheless, it's what's available to me so I do it. Some my age don't even get that opportunity. 

Dinosaurs disappear. I suppose I'll have to evolve because I refuse to accept that I'm obsolete. If you've seen the Twilight Zone episode, you know that Burgess Meredith refused to go quietly too. Wish me luck, or better yet, hire me...but don't count me out.

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