WASHINGTON, DC / The Atlantic / Life / September 6, 2011
Losing the American Dream of Progress: Getting Fired at Midlife
By Margaret Morganroth Gullette
Even though it is illegal, eliminating midlife workers has become a tacit business practice, putting the middle-aged in a difficult position
Eliminating midlife workers, although illegal, has become a tacit business practice. According to one typical case that went to trial, an employer says, "We need young blood"; then employees over forty get fired (PDF). It's not just affecting the bluest of blue-collar workers, but also professionals and managers. Younger people are not only cheaper, but also less likely to remember what decent hours and wages and security were like. The number of age discrimination cases has risen almost every year since 1997, from under 16,000 people to 24,600 in 2008, according to the government's own data. An AARP litigator, Laurie McCann, believes the numbers represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Congress starves the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, leaving understaffed investigators unable to do their jobs.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a cultural critic and nonfiction writer, an internationally known age critic, an essayist, feminist, and activist. Her latest book is Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America
Two years ago I got a distressing email from a friend who had learned computer skills in her fifties to start a second career. She couldn't find a job.
"I was interviewed only twice. Friends say my age is a main factor. What 36-year-old director of anything wants an assistant who is as old as her own mother? This has been truly depressing. Every application is an act of hope but I have been deflated so often, my pride bruised and my student loan still looms. I had not anticipated this problem. That was naive...."
She's still looking.
Many people have no idea how likely they are to lose out because of age -- which means they blame themselves rather than American middle ageism.
Among the unemployed over 45, half have been out of work "long term" -- more than six months. After 54, it gets worse. In February 2010, only 23.3 percent of youths had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer compared with 39.4 percent of "older" workers.
People who lose jobs at midlife typically earn much less afterward. Boomers -- so often touted as privileged -- have a ten percent poverty rate between the ages of 40 and 50, when they should be approximating their peak wage.
People who are long unemployed can lose homes. Sex life ends. Families disintegrate. Parents fear becoming dependent on adult offspring in old age. Some midlife adults move in with their elderly parents.
Health suffers. Of the 46 million people without health insurance, almost a fifth are Boomers between the ages of 45 and 64. They can't afford insurance. Many postpone tests and medical care. Not all make it to Medicare. Between the ages of 55 and 64, nearly 11 percent die, more than any other uninsured age group (PDF). Women and women between the ages of 45 and 54 have a rising suicide rate (PDF).
None of this is new. I call this pattern "middle ageism," because, at 40 and up, the victims should have long productive lives ahead. "Encore careers," indeed.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967) has not worked as a deterrent to illegal behavior. Its enforcement arm, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), finds for plaintiffs only three to four percent of the time. It sues on behalf of a worker even less, in under .005 percent of cases, according to Laurie Mcann of AARP. So meager a number of firings "for cause" suggests that it is "engaged in discovering where discrimination does not exist rather than where it does," in the words of Raymond Gregory, a lawyer and expert on these issues. Gregory's book, Age Discrimination in the Workplace: Old at a Young Age, explains in detail how the system turned into what it is today.
The Supreme Court, in Gross vs. FBL Financial Services (2009), made it almost impossible to win an age suit. Congress starves the EEOC, leaving understaffed investigators unable to do their jobs.
How could the destructive conditions of middle ageism be fought better?
In states with better civil-rights laws and remedies that can work around the federal system, it makes sense to ignore the EEOC and sue locally. Congress could better fund the Commission. It could over-rule Gross, giving age equal status to race and gender on the grounds of "disparate effects."
A single-payer insurance plan that did not penalize midlife workers with premiums two to four times higher than the young would prove that we value growing older.
Now, despite our boasted longevity, many Americans suffer from a viciously truncated working-life course. Younger people learn the value of the life course by observing their elders; What many are learning now is that they have less of a future than they thought.
The United States should be proactive in undoing this capitalist catastrophe. "Progress" in life could again mean gains in respect, ability to help adult children, and the assumption that experience matters. Seniority, broadly defined. The life course ought to be a story of progress that children can look forward to, workers can appreciate, and elders can look back on with pride.
Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.
Copyright © 2011 by The Atlantic Monthly Group
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