Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Older Workers -- Down, But Not Out
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It doesn't matter how able and deserving you may be. Once you reach a particular age, and want a job, or a promotion, or just to keep the job you have, there's a very real danger you won't get what you want.

That's been a harsh fact of working life for many years. There are laws against it, of course, but they are barely enforced -- if enforced at all. Recent studies show that at least 40 percent of U.S. workers aged 40 or more experience illegal discrimination.

Many older workers seeking jobs are arbitrarily rejected before they even have a chance to be interviewed. Many who do manage interviews are quickly rejected for no reason except their age. Others are arbitrarily fired or rejected for promotions or raises.

Still others are pressured into retiring "voluntarily" to make way for younger workers. Some are offered extra pension benefits and severance pay, some threatened with having their pay and benefits reduced if they don't leave.

The AARP and other groups as well as government agencies and investigative journalists cite many instances of bias. They tell, for example, of a 45-year-old man who was turned down by no less than 600 firms in searching for a business management job for which he was clearly qualified. Among the other victims was a 57-year-old man with a master's degree in chemical engineering, a doctorate in statistics and economics and "significant managerial and technical achievements" who couldn't even get employers to talk with him.

Women are especially vulnerable. As one unsuccessful female job seeker noted, "We have to face the 'beauty image' as well as the youth prejudice. Men can have wrinkles and gray hair and still look distinguished, women just look old."

Relatively few of those who claim discrimination file legal complaints, however -- only one in five, says the AARP. The others fear they'd be fired or otherwise penalized if they spoke up or feel it wouldn't change anything anyway and in any case would involve a long and arduous process.

Employers meanwhile pay little or no attention to the age discrimination laws. They openly favor younger workers, who generally can be paid less than workers with seniority and are less demanding because of their inexperience and eagerness to secure a foothold.

Some employers are swayed by the myths about older workers that many people accept as fact. It's not true, for instance, that older workers are accident-prone. Those over 55 actually have fewer accidents than younger workers. Studies also show that older workers produce as much or more because of their greater knowledge, experience and commitment and have at least as great a capacity to learn new skills required by changing technology.

But probably the most important fact of all is that the number of older Americans is steadily increasing while the number of younger people is steadily decreasing. Some day soon, employers will have little choice but to hire and retain more and more older workers.

Even the most recalcitrant finally may be forced to realize that it's not how old you are but what you can do that truly matters.

Copyright Dick Meister