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Exploiting Retired Elders

category_bug_ageism.gif Now here’s an employment idea whose time, apparently, has come: recruit retired company employees, put them back to work and don’t pay them.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that one of the oldest technology companies, HP, is trying to lure up to 40,000 of their retirees to work voluntarily as marketers, “good-will ambassadors,” and as sales people in such stores as Circuit City extolling the virtues of HP products. And, they are succeeding.

“The company said participation is the reward. ‘It’s about being part of the HP community and its rich heritage,’ said [chief marketing officer, Michael] Mendenhall. ‘That’s what they get.’”

“Rich heritage”, that is, for HP executives. According to the company’s 2008 proxy statement [pdf] (page 46), the CEO’s current, annual pay package including stocks, options and other benefits is $25,254,000. Executive vice presidents’ annual salaries-plus-benefits range from $3,742,000 to $15,676,000.

Recruiting a 40,000-person freebie workforce compensates nicely for the 30,000 paid employees who have been laid off from HP in the past five years, leaving one to wonder how much the board will increase executive pay for the next fiscal year, in gratitude for finding a way to maintain the company's employee base while eliminating those pesky salaries that plague the bottom line.

Incredibly, retired employees are going along with giving away their knowledge and experience.

“It makes [the retirees] feel good, makes them feel part of it, makes them feel wanted,” said [62-year-old] Mr. [John] Toppel, who spent 31 years at Hewlett-Packard and now is a professor of management at the business school at Santa Clara University.”

At the other end of the age scale, unpaid corporate internships were mostly eliminated a decade or more ago. If high school and college kids with no work experience are entitled to a salary, why is it okay to mine decades of expertise from elders without pay? Dare one call this the ultimate ageism?

The Times story doesn’t say if other companies have jumped on HP’s exploit-the-elders move. If they haven’t, they undoubtedly soon will now that HP had successfully taken the lead. How is it right for a publicly-traded corporation to increase profits with the unpaid labor of old people, and what are those go-along elders thinking?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Grannie Annie relates a scary tale in Gypsy Cab Ride.]


Interesting. I don't like it, and I wouldn't do it, and yet--this does highlight the sometimes extreme desire of some elders to feel "needed" and "appreciated." It's a sad commentary on our times in more than one way.

No surprise here. The government does more or less the same thing itself.

I hope no one really decides to participate in such a program. I find it demeaning to ask a retiree to work for free. It just goes along with the "old" people bring no value, financially or otherwise, which is a media personification of elders. Some marketing industry publications are probably touting this as an inventive idea from the CMO. Maybe we should ask him if he wants to work for free!

If you don't play bridge or golf, and don't want to become a couch potato, finding some way to keep occupied and keep the brain engaged is very difficult. I've tried volunteering for various things. I was a teacher and a computer guru. I think I still have something to offer. The only responses I've gotten have been requests for money. I am grateful that the University of Pittsburgh has a wonderful Osher Lifelong Learning Program. I love being back in school.

I think there are many non-profits who could make use of my services, but I would not go to work for my former employer, or any other profit-making venture, unless I was very well paid.

What a scam! It is understandable and praiseworthy that many retirees feel the need to participate in society by donating their time and experience. But the many deserving charities and non-profits out there are the way to go, not an exploitative corporation.

The only possible reason I can think of for going along with this might be if a retiree's nest egg or pension is heavily dependent on the former employer's stock performance, and thinks that such volunteerism might pay off in enhanced retirement income. But that would be more perception than reality.

I had not heard about this even though my husband is an HP retiree. They used to have them do it while working there as a way to keep them in touch with the customers. It could be some of the retirees do it in hopes of helping the company do well as many received stocks or options at low prices as bonuses while working there which means they still have a financial stake in it doing well.

I could pull my hair out!!
What's wrong with those experienced workers? Now, we must assume that they are getting something for it and that something is an intangible. So go work for the homeless, the orphaned, the sick! Good grief, there are better ways to feel go and not be such a class A chump in the doing!

Exploitation at its worst. Really ugly.

It's vile! I wonder if HP uses child labor to build their computers. I sure hope nobody takes them up on it.

Next thing I know, I'll be out the door because some elder idiot can replace me...for FREE.

Pure dee horsecrap.

Sheesh. If it isn't hard enough to hang onto a job with a few gray hairs, now someone is eager and willing to do it without pay? How do you compete with free?

It is SO sad that these retirees are going along with this degrading endeavor. In our culture we all have more to lose all the time if we let corporations define how "useful" we are.


We give too much power away whenever we roll over if "they" notice little us--whether we're 30 or 70.

The only difference is, by the time we're 70, we oughta know better.

First: It is not 'exploiting' someone if that someone is volunteering. If someone wants to volunteer their time for whatever reason or purpose, it is their choice to do so.

HP's 'culture' (something encouraged by HP management for many years) has encouraged employees to feel like a 'family', in fact, HP had an extremely long run with no lay-offs, when other companies were ditching people left and right. HP employees were HP employees for life. Certainly this has changed, but it is not surprising to me that these folks from that time feel like they are helping 'family members'. HP was different. I never chugged that cool-aid, but a lot of people did. Smart extremely well educated people.

I doubt that Michael Dell is going to get a volunteer work staff of 30,000. The situation is entirely different.

But what really makes me squirm is that you are implying that well educated and intelligent older people are victims. They aren't victims. They're volunteers.

Sorry Ronnie, this is a non-issue. There are real issues concerning older people and the workforce, but this is not one of them.

Actually, the story of worker exploitation in Malaysia and other places to manufacture computers would break your heart. It's not a pretty history.

HP used to be one of the best companies, too. This makes me sad. And I sure wish we would stop undercutting the kids who need those internships and entry jobs. But then we would have to stop undercutting the mid level employees and older workers forced into retirement, too.

At least the CEOs are doing well. Let's see them cry when their jobs are outsourced as well. ;^)

After retiring from teaching high school, I noticed my school board was trying to recruit volunteers to go into classrooms to help teachers. For free. I might consider helping teachers IF I were paid to do so, but after all my years doing tons of extras in the building for free, why would I want to give my talents away for no $. This whole thing makes me sick. Get seniors to work for free. Well, I'd rather dig ditches for money than be made a sucker. Why do so many people want to prey on seniors? Seniors are gold, not guinea pigs. Man I am boiling about this dumb HP idea & I am typing on one right now. Maybe I should crack it over the skull of the nitwit who thought this cheezy idea up.

I agree with Ruthe, it is very hard to find volunteer possibilities that actually make use of an elder's accumulated experience and skills. I've had the same difficulty, so I sympathize with elders who end up volunteering for a corporation in order to feel like they still have something somebody out there values. Right now I volunteer for a local foodbank and find it rewarding, but believe it or not that was not an easy volunteer job to come by. Contrary to some people's opinions, worthwhile volunteer opportunities do not grow on trees. Ridiculous and sad, but true.

Ruthe, I agree that taking classes is emotionally invigorating. I was intrigued by your not finding a good volunteer spot. Googled Pittsburgh area volunteer opportunities and 252 listings came up. Sometimes our talents can be applied in related ways. I went from being an English teacher to being a zoo docent. Same job, different word. Shame on those places who responded to your offers with requests for money instead.

You certainly have pinpointed an issue that graphically demonstrates how older people are exploited and the rationales they employ enabling them to embrace being used.

I do understand how former workers, stockholders feel a vested interest in perpetuating their companies continued prospering but...the salaries, stock options, etc. you cite say it all. Executive salaries compared to that of workers have been and continue to be way out of proportion with each other.

I wouldn't have always thought quite this way, but income levels in this country have become so lopsided with such blatant greed from those who have so much and a government that keeps giving them more. There's such a prevalent "let them eat cake" attitude toward workers who are the backbone of this country that I think older employees deserve some recompense for the value of their skills and knowledge.

What are they--the retirees--thinking? That the old adage, "You'll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people" needs more proof?

How is voluntarily "helping" one's former employer different from voluntarily spending one's time and talent on behalf of a non-profit entity? This is a serious question.

For the last two and one-half years, I have been the equivalent of full-time employed by a non-profit (taking much training, fulfilling assignments nation-wide, providing needed information management to the local unit, providing mentoring and leadership to other paid and volunteer workers....) Many employees of the non-profit have just received their pink slips. Can I, in good conscience, continue to volunteer?

Cop Car: There is all the difference between voluntarily helping a for-profit corporation and volunteering with a non-profit.

For-profit corporations' first obligation, by statute, is to their stockholders - that is, to increase the value of the stock.

Non-profits' obligation is to help those in need, usually for free.

HP is persuading retirees to use their expertise to increase the company's value and the stockholders' dividends without paying the retirees. Would you work to put money in corporate pockets for free?

Unless HP is also persuading mid-age people to work without pay, it is demeaning to elders that they alone of age groups should.

There is little difference between someone volunteering for a non-profit and someone volunteering for a 'for profit' organization. (Non-profit? Huh? How much do those execs make? What about the perks?)

Do you think that a non-profit is not also beholden to its board?

Greed? How about those top non-profits, such as the United Way, the Red Cross, even the 'little old' Girl Scouts (something I've had direct involvement in, and boy, talk about a scam!).

Every person who volunteers at one of these outfits can be proud that they are helping to enrich those at the top. Non-profits seem to always have a 'get out of jail' card with their whine of "We help the poor!!!'. Some paltry percentage of collected funds make their way into 'good causes'. Some of those 'good causes' also being 'fund raisers'?

Don't believe it? Do you think that the 'down and dirty' volunteers (We're not talking twin-set Junior League here) get invited to the executive soirees? Nope, they get to mess in the enlisted tent drinking warm beer or bad wine out of plastic cups and eating corn dogs. The execs and their Junior League (read: wealthy, well connected) 'volunteers' sip champagne out of glass flutes and nibble smoked salmon. The 'little people' wouldn't know how to behave, would they? Been there, got the education. The non-profit aristocracy sickens me far more than the greed of corporate execs, who at least don't hide their modus operandi, behind crocodile tears, wept for the 'poor'.

There is no difference. Except honesty in purpose.

I believe that there will be more HP's and Wal-Marts, etc. trying to exploit older workers. If you need to volunteer your services instead of going to corporate sources go to your local community places to do some badly needed social good. It will be necessary for Boomers to continually learn how to become more creative/productive people instead of being used by these corporate types.

Ronni & Jan give interesting counterpoints, one to the other. Thanks for the food for thought.

When I was employed, many of us said (only half jokingly) that we were having so much fun that we would do it for free if we had to (or pay for the privilege!) On the other hand, when fellow-employeds whined about anything that the government might do to help others who were un/under-employed, I told them that there were more people than good jobs. Thus, why not pay a bit for the privilege of doing what we enjoy? Why should someone who does not enjoy doing those things be penalized. I could envision a world in which I, who enjoyed working, would not be allowed to work while many who did not enjoy working would be forced to do so! I wander far afield.

This is not a non-issue; this is a very bad precedent.

It's not about the fact that you volunteer, and therefore are not "exploited," it's the situation you're supposedly volunteering for, and why. What would you do if your daughter or son was laid off from a company, that asked you to volunteer for them? The company keeps going, but both of you are without income. Think about that.

Communities need more volunteer help than HP. It's sad that we'll help a corporation faster than our neighbor.

Cap'n Jan, you really hit the nail on the head about United Way, Red Cross, etc. Several years ago, I had an interview with United Way for an administrative position. I was floored when I walked into their offices and saw all of the expensive furniture, carpeting, art work on the walls, and other surprising things. The guy I interviewed with was such an arrogant asshole (and, of course, wore an expensive looking suit).
So, I don't know which is worse, HP and others like them or the so-called charity organizations.

Wow I am sooo enjoying this thread and wish more people would add comments. Interesting to read about non-profits, etc. I applied to work at Habitat for Humanity on a women's build. Even after filling in forms, etc. I never got one call. But they still advertise for women to build homes. I'll stick to renovating my own house, thanks.

In answer to sahara:

This whole business about HP most certainly is a non-issue. I suppose if my son or daughter were laid off from HP and HP (in a moment of reckless abandon) asked me to volunteer for them. Let me think. OK, I would say NO. But then, I would say no, regardless of whether my children were laid off from that company.

I would also say 'no' to volunteerism in any non-profit that I have ever had the displeasure to be associated with. (Those that have paid executives.)

As I said, and apparently you didn't read: HP is different. Let me see if I can get this across. HP, in the 60's and 70's was a company that recruited at colleges, indoctrinated these new employees into the 'HP Way' (this is what HP calls it, it is THE HP culture.) They then proceeded to do everything possible to hold onto those employees. I believe that HP may have had the lowest attrition rate of any company at that time. You had a job with HP, you had a job for life, you were part of the family. It was not that easy to get a job with HP for an 'older' engineer, regardless of qualifications. They made no secret of wanting them as fresh-outs with no preconceived notions, so they could be 'trained'.

Now these people are retiring, they are the ones who believe that HP is 'different'. Talk to one of them and you will hear it first-hand. Talk to a person hired in the late 80's and you will hear a different story entirely. One might volunteer time to a company that treated them like 'family'. I know what I am talking about here. My husband worked for HP when his company was acquired - but he left rather quickly after the HP Way indoctrination meetings. I am also an Engineer and have worked for many companies and have consulted for HP. So I do have some understanding from the inside.

Now, in case you did not hear this, I'll say it again: THE HP SITUATION IS DIFFERENT. Do you really think that former IBM employees are going to be volunteering for IBM? How about all those past GM employees? Give me a break! It is a non-issue. End of story.

NOW, non-profits have been snookering their employees and volunteers for years, yet I hear no Outraged Voices! Beautiful offices, wonderful accommodations, cruddy salaries - lousy benefits. That is, for the office workers and of course, those, well, you know, those people who get their hands soiled doing that thing called 'work'. And the top level executives? Well, you can't expect them to work for peanuts. Their excuse for their ridiculous salaries? "We bring money INTO the organization" Yeah. Sure they do.

Again, what surprises me is that nobody seems particularly Outraged when older people are asked to give their time for free to these these large money-machines. To me that is the crying shame of the world. They're throwing their time (read: life) away - to my way of thinking. But it IS their choice.

Now have I put my foot in it!

This a sad commentary the the elders need to feel so useful that they would volunteer their services free.

There are many ways to volunteer. Helping a neighbor who is housebound, baby sitting for a tired mother, etc. should make any elder feeling good about participating.

If you volunteer on a one-to-one basis you are sure your services are welcome and appreciated. What could be more rewarding?

To all those weeping tears/gnashing teeth over the thought that an elder is so needy that she must volunteer: weep/gnash no more. Those who have read me know of my volunteer endeavors. To those who have not read me: 1) I don't do the volunteer work because it makes me feel needed, but because I truly enjoy doing what I do. I'm up front about this to the non-profit--that I do what I do, for fun. If I don't enjoy it, I don't do it! It is a bonus that others may benefit from my work. 2) I do volunteer through my local unit which is affiliated with a national organization. It is clear to me and everyone else that, in a contest between working on a project close to home and one farther away, the nearer/nearest project wins my support. 3) As a retired aerospace engineer, it would be darned difficult to find something to which my skills totally apply (well, an aircraft-restoration project wanted my skill set, but it would have included the possibility of my being sued for millions of dollars should the completed plane ever crash/be involved in an accident); however, what I am doing does require certain subsets of my skills, keeping my skills sharper. 4) Recipients of benefits that I help to provide are charged NOTHING. 5) It would be short-sighted to put executives of non-profits in raggedy digs. Just try getting donations from big donors that way! You gotta play by the donors' rules, sometimes. (Yes, I lament that money is spent that way; but, I recognize the reality of fund raising.)

I try to understand where various commenters are coming from, and wonder at the life experiences that have put each of us where we are. Variety: The spice of life! Thankfully, we're not (yet) all peas in a pod!

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