This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Designed to eradicate the unfounded assumption that age automatically affects one’s ability to work, the statute prohibits discrimination against workers age 40 and over. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the cohort of 65-plus workers (baby boomers and beyond) is projected to grow by 75 percent by 2050, while the group of workers age 25 to 54 is expected to grow by only 2 percent over the same period.
That statistic, of course, assumes that older workers will be hired, retained, and promoted. But many companies still tolerate vile comments about the so-called elderly. To the older worker, the question remains: Why are the most experienced and, arguably, wisest employees routinely jettisoned for younger, less stable workers? One simple answer might be what older workers say about themselves.
The concept of developing one’s personal brand to stand out and succeed in the marketplace is a recent phenomenon that classic baby boomers often find repugnant. Shouldn’t doing your job well all these years be enough?
Not when you’re effectively countering your performance with an “anti-brand,” the unfortunate tendency of senior workers to play into—and embrace—the geezer stereotype.
Starting a workplace conversation with the phrase “When I was younger …” or “You’re too young to even remember this, but …,” or, most deadly, “We tried that once, and it didn’t work” is more than a mere utterance from a likely has-been. These phrases convey the arrogance of the change-averse and stop any conversation cold. Oddly, the effect desired by the geezer speaker is to massage the moment with gentle humor, simultaneously one-upping any suggestion of doing something differently with the smug reminder that “I’m older (meaning smarter) than you.”
Equally off-putting is this non-response to a workplace question: “Give me a second, I’m having a senior moment.” Designed, apparently, to cover a temporary memory loss, the phrase “senior moment” should be eradicated from popular usage. A perfectly acceptable phrase used by non-seniors is “Oh sorry, I lost my train of thought” or, even better, “You lost me there.” As in “I have so many complex and original thoughts swirling around in my head while I’m talking to you on your less-than-interesting subject that my mind understandably wandered.”
Without question, every industry fears older workers who can’t adapt, who are “digital immigrants” rather than young “digital natives,” tech phrases actually used in one Silicon Valley application form. But the necessity of having to—or choosing to—work after traditional retirement age is very real for millions of people. With a historically low unemployment rate, companies should be hungry for competent workers who likely have had just one or two employers during their entire work life, as opposed to the average 11 employers young people today can expect to work for in their lifetimes.
Contrary to popular thought, however, it’s not always younger bosses who avoid hiring experienced workers. None other than esteemed former jurist Richard Posner, in a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion affirming the dismissal of an age discrimination claim, took it upon himself to explain why older workers “naturally … exempt themselves from what they believe to be the characteristic decline of energy and ability with age.” When such people, according to Posner, are supervisors, they can be “oblivious to the prejudices they hold, especially perhaps prejudices against the group to which they belong.”
It is common, Posner said, for those in power with a long track record (in this case a supervisor older than the 56-year-old employee whose job he eliminated) to want to “surround themselves with younger people … [and] protect their own jobs by making sure the workforce is not too old, which might, if ‘ageist’ prejudice is rampant, lead to reductions-in-force of which they themselves might be the victims.” (Kadas v. MCI Systemhouse Corp., 7th Circuit, 2001)
This vicious circle described by Judge Posner (himself recently retired at age 78½) aptly illustrates the conundrum of trying to prove the legal standard of intentional discrimination under the ADEA. On the other hand, it reminds us that the most successfully diverse workforce could include workers from six decades, none of whom identify as geezers, but all of whom could ideally recognize the immutability of aging.
As Teddy Roosevelt put it, “Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.”
Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney with her own law firm, Holstein Law Group. She helps businesses and individuals with workplace issues, including MSP Communications.