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OLDER WORKERS: DOWN BUT NOT OUT

By Dick Meister

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. And now the always serious problems faced by older workers have worsened, thanks to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking state employees from filing lawsuits under the federal age discrimination law.

In one of the most absurd opinions ever issued by any court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor actually claimed -- in writing for a 5-4 majority late last year -- that "older persons ... have not been subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment."

Although characterizing age discrimination against state employees as "a perhaps inconsequential problem," O'Connor did say that those who nevertheless wanted to pursue legal action could do so under state laws. What she failed to note, however, was that state age discrimination laws are barely enforced -- if enforced at all.

Thus the court has denied the 5 million men and women who work for state governments help that's essential if they are to combat the obviously not inconsequential problem of age discrimination.

As Laurie McCann of the American Association of Retired People (AARP) says, the decision signaled that if protection against age discrimination "is a civil right at all, it's a second-class right."

That figures, given the U>S> obsession with the culture of the young and the widespread belief in the false assumption that older workers are less valuable.

Justice O'Connor to the contrary, recent studies show that at least 40 percent of U.S. workers aged 40 or more experience illegal discrimination. That's why job consultants typically advise older clients to hide their age. Don't cite "over a quarter-century in the trade" on your resume, they suggest; make it "more than 15 years experience."

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.

"There's a new meaning for overqualified," says the AARP's executive director, Horace B. Deets -- "over-age."

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."

Another victim told of "qualifying for my MBA as my fourth (and last) child was en route through high school" and then seeking a management position -- but abandoning the search after 40 job interviews. Said she: "There was no mistaking the combined shock and horror the interviewers experienced when they identified a 47-year-old woman as the candidate."

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. __________________________________________________ Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcaster reporter, editor and commentator. c 2000 Dick Meister

 


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