Ageism Is a Funny Thing

It’s strange how mutually exclusive two of the most common forms of age bias can be. 

If one is over 50 and loses one’s job, it’s a Very Big Deal.  A post on LinkedIn referencing the difficulty of landing a decent position post-50 will pull in dozens of comments and ugly personal stories.  When I was ousted at 61 from the business journal where I worked, a wise [older, self-employed] family friend said, “I’d never tell you not to bother looking for another job, but if I were you, I wouldn’t expect too much.  Be ready to resign yourself to not ever making good money again, if you can even get hired.  It’s not personal, it just is.” 

He was right.  My résumé was impressive; a couple dozen potential employers said so.  All the phone screenings went well.  To my surprise, I started getting interviews immediately.  But….when I went to those in-person meetings, though they seemed to me to go well, no offers were forthcoming.  One, two, maybe three interviews, I could chalk it up to my having done something wrong or unwittingly made a faux pas, but not a dozen-and-a-half times.  I also encountered a subtle “age” question or two.  If one can no longer pass for 40, is clearly closer to the end of one’s career than the beginning, it’s a losing battle.  Forget heading the front desk if one could be a grandmother to three-quarters of the tech geeks at a cutting-edge app company.  I’ve heard the same story from several skilled, competent friends who were also let go from high-level positions, so my personal evidence is fairly extensive, not just limited to social media comments. 

A few years ago, my former company did a mass cut of older management staff across the board.  People with awards for service and longevity, quite a few with 30 years’ tenure or more, were simply cashiered.  It was a quiet maneuver, and the official word was that these people had voluntarily retired, but the fact that one day they were there, and the next day they were gone, with no word to their subordinates….didn’t pass the smell test.  I have no doubt whatsoever that this example is not an isolated case.  What’s going on in all these many, many instances, in which people with decades of knowledge and experience are shoved out of work at which they’re supremely capable, then are forced to settle for menial positions, if they’re lucky enough to get them?  I really doubt the recent generation of gray-haired associates I’ve seen in big-box stores had “working in mass retail” as their goal statements. 

I think the answer here is pretty simple, and it’s spelled, “$$$$.”  Experienced workers naturally expect higher wages.  They look for solid benefits.  I would suppose that having a fair percentage of more mature employees in the pool automatically raises rates for group healthcare plans, as well.  Long and short, it’s cheaper to terminate the older people and hire in younger people, at least on paper, and that’s all CEOs and HR departments look at, apparently.  Seemingly, it doesn’t matter that companies following that practice are by definition less efficient.  There’s less continuity, less historic knowledge, less big-picture perspective.  The corporate-speak rationale for eliminating those with seniority — loss of skills, inability to keep up with new software and technology — is patently ridiculous; in my experience, older employees end up teaching younger ones, who frequently have only Cliff Notes knowledge of various software platforms, for instance.  The old story about the senior engineer who was let go sums up the situation.  When a vital machine broke down, none of the remaining staff in the manufacturing company could figure out how to fix it.  After much trial and error, and much expense, the former employee was consulted.  His fee was $50,000 for half an hour’s work:  $4 for a new part, and $49,996 for knowing which one it was and where to install it. 

Despite the illogical and costly mindset, then, in the corporate world, all too many workers over 50 have little value.

Not so in the political world.  Older voters are assiduously courted by both major parties.  Such voters are seen as a must-have demographic.  Why the contrast with the big business view?  For one thing, the over-50 crowd theoretically has more money, and therefore, more donor potential (provided they can remain employed…).  Too, they’re considered more likely to vote than, say, 20-somethings.  Meaning that they aren’t valued as people, just as warm bodies, but still, they’re important during election season.  Certainly, they’re more settled in their views, and so easier to appeal to, making campaign managers’ jobs simpler across the political spectrum.  Also, chances are, they move in groups of like mind, so one person may influence a circle of others. 

On the other end of the telescope, candidates with more mileage are generally seen as more desirable for top positions than younger challengers.  Obviously, there have been a handful of exceptions — both candidates and winners — since JFK took office as the youngest U.S. President to date, but the 74-year-old now in the Oval Office, and his 77-year-old likely competitor, along with the 78-year-old who has apparently lost the Democratic nomination, are all at the extreme end of the age scale when it comes to running for office.  The average age at assuming the office of President, through the current incumbent, is about 55.  In other words, the people who have held the highest post in the nation probably couldn’t get hired at many corporations. 

Why do we think seniors are perfectly capable of running the country, but not adequate to hold responsible positions in companies (except those revolving-door CEO assignments)?  Or why is every candidate after over-50 votes, but uncaring about those voters’ employment stability?  We in the “mature” demographic would be much happier if our skills and knowledge counted for much more in the scheme of things than do our ballot-marking preferences.

4 thoughts on “Ageism Is a Funny Thing

  1. I agree whole-heartedly with your comments regarding ageism. Do I ever! I was released due to budget cuts. Or so ‘they’ said. The Cleveland Clinic is one of the biggest age discriminators in regards to the way they treat older, more qualified employees. Fortunately I found something decent,& equivalent to what I was doing at the Clinic. However, I’m earning only ‘half’ of what I was making when I was at the clinic. Why? Because I’m starting over form the beginning in a new place. I keep in touch with my former colleagues, and the age issue continues there. I completely identify with everything you’ve posted!


    1. It’s everywhere, and no surprise that the Clinic is no different. When I worked for that organization, I quickly found out that patients are only numbers, and the “non-profit” label is bogus.

      And yes, if you’re of a certain age, you might very well be forced to start over, and that inevitably means a salary cut. Disgraceful, considering how hard mature employees have worked to acquire skills and experience.


  2. so long as one is not an inveterate pyrrhonist, s/he can be reassured by the inevitability of finding a neoteric, perhaps more meaningful path into the dark forest of forced retirement. being fired can be as liberating as emerging from a mother’s womb, the consequences of which can inspire supervenient trajectories focussing on others rather than oneself. “starting over” carries propinations of potential stewardship, creative eleemosynary endeavours on behalf of others, a refreshing alteration in perspective, and an invigorating breath of youthful fearlessness.


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