[EDITORIAL NOTE: Don't forget, if you are interested the documentary film, RBG, about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it will be broadcast this evening on CNN at 9PM and again at 12 midnight U.S. eastern time.
* * *
Between the beginning of the great recession in 2008 through the year 2010, 8.7 million U.S. workers, many at the peak of their careers, were laid off. Breakdown of the statistics by age is hard to come by but we can estimate that at least tens of thousands were within the last two or three or four years or so their working lives.
When jobs began to return, did they get back on track?
Through the years since the start of the recession I've wondered what happened to those people. And now that the country apparently has attained near-full employment, have they been hired?
As of last month, the number of jobs in the U.S. is 7.7 percent higher than at the start of the recession. So pretty much everyone should be employed, right?
Well, maybe. Except for the fact that the 7.7 percent comes out almost even equal with the number of new workers who have entered the workforce in that period of time. Even so, the unemployment rate is currently at a low 3.9 percent, a number that hasn't been seen since 2001.
Last week, the Boston Globe (paywall) took a look at what such a tight labor market means for older workers.
The jobless rate for workers 55 and older, 3.1 percent, looks good for those job seekers on it face.
”...but that’s little consolation to the longtime unemployed and underemployed in that age group," reports The Globe. "Research dating back to the 1980s shows that job options narrow for those over 50.
“Many of these workers get funneled into lower-paying 'old person jobs' — everything from retail sales clerks to security or school-crossing guards to taxi drivers, according to a 2016 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.”
Plus, the same-old, same old false prejudices and objections to older workers are still widespread: that they expect higher wages; they increase health insurance costs; they are stuck in their ways and can't learn new skills. The Boston Globe:
”Fairly or not, employers’ reluctance to pay more for older workers can be the biggest obstacle, said Donald Klepper-Smith, chief economist at DataCore Partners, an economic research firm based in New Haven and Martha’s Vineyard.
“'Many employers are looking at what they’re paying a 60-year-old and they’re saying, Wait, I can hire two hungry 30-year-olds for the same cost,' he said. Klepper-Smith, who is 64, added, 'My wife is joking right now that she’ll outsource me for two 30-year-olds.'”
I don't mean to be snide - well, maybe I do - is age and low wage now the only criteria? Do knowledge and experience have no place anymore in the workplace?
For older workers left out or left behind in those old people jobs, the future can be bleak. After years of no income and/or much lower income, their savings is often depleted, they don't make enough to pay off debts and save for their future which has its own consequences:
”...older employees continue to be pigeonholed into lower-wage positions, Rutledge said, with often dire financial consequences for their retirement savings and income.
“A lot of people think their earnings are going to grow as they get older,” he said. “When that doesn’t happen, it means they’ve probably overestimated how much they can save and what their Social Security benefits will be. And they’ll end up living on less.”
Although the number of unfilled jobs in the U.S. is the highest it has been in 17 years, ”...most of the openings are in sectors like retail, services, and transportation”, reports The Globe. Old people jobs.
Some say the job market is loosening up a bit and that that bodes well for age 55-plus workers. I'm not so optimistic. In all the years prior to the great recession, age discrimination in the workplace was in full force. Many TGB readers, including me, have been caught in that trap as we grew older.
Don't forget too that in the decade since the recession, the gig economy has taken off with its short-term jobs, low pay, often no health coverage, and freelancers and contractors usually required to pay the full Social Security tax including the employer half, not just their own contribution.
That affects workers of all ages but older ones have so little time to make up the difference for their retirement.
Employment these days is not a pretty picture for millions of people and I'm grateful to not be part of it any longer, either starting out or finishing up a career. Like many TGB readers, I had a taste of workplace discrimination when I was laid off at age 63 and couldn't get rehired in the extremely youth-oriented internet work world I had been part of for 10 years, or anywhere else.
That affected my Social Security benefit in the negative but I'm fortunate to have enough to get by in relative comfort anyway. I don't want for anything and I thank the gods daily for Medicare.
And contrary to what the Boston Globe seems to believe, age discrimination in the workplace has not gotten better with time.
It has been 51 years since the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was enacted by Congress. It is administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) but far too often the law favors employers over aggrieved employees.
One way that happens is that in legal proceedings, most employers have attorneys on staff or on retainer and they get paid whatever they are working on. They can drag out paperwork and other delays, as only lawyers can, until the (now laid off) plaintiff can't afford to pay his/her attorney any longer.
As pessimistic as I am, even the EEOC doesn't see much change in attitudes of the culture and employers toward older workers. In a historical overview published in 2017, the agency reported:
“Despite decades of research finding that age does not predict ability or performance, employers often fall back on precisely the ageist stereotypes the ADEA was enacted to prohibit.
“After 50 years of a federal law whose purpose is to promote the employment of older workers based on ability, age discrimination remains too common and too accepted.”
It is true that the workplace is in a huge transition and no one knows how or when or in what form it will settle down.
One thing can be counted on, however: age discrimination in the workplace is only one form of ageism and it will not go away until all forms of ageism are vanquished, and no one is stuck in an old person's job just because they are old.