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Age Discrimination: Blame the Victim

category_bug_ageism.gif I was contacted by a man who is writing a story for the job website, monster.com, about how old people can “reposition their skills for today’s job market.”

Having no idea what that means, I asked the writer who said it refers to old people who are “afraid” to update their skills. When I pushed for a source for that piece of information, he told me it’s “all those old people out there” who say so.

Ah, I see. That’s certainly as reliable as a Pew survey or a Yankelovich poll, don’t you think?

I had been skeptical of this interview from the get-go and had warned the writer when he first emailed that I might not be the person who could best meet his needs since I’d already taken issue with his ageist assumptions a couple of years ago.

On that occasion, he had written approvingly that elders could take pay cuts of 20 percent to get a job (no matter their skills or experience, of course) because with their kids out of college, their living expenses are low.

Let’s see if that statement can withstand the TGB Bias Test by replacing the word “elders” with “blacks”: “…blacks can take pay cuts of 20 percent because their living expenses are low.”

As expected, it fails the test. The statement would never make it past the editor’s desk but, apparently, it’s okay when applied to elders.

Well, it wasn’t okay when it was published and it will never be okay. In print or in practice, that statement is morally reprehensible and typical of too much so-called “advice” to elders on getting a job.

In fact, it is an excellent example of pure, unadulterated age discrimination, the kind of ludicrous practice the women’s movement took down several decades ago. (It was once acceptable to pay women less than men for the same job because men had families to support and women didn’t.)

When I reminded the interviewer that I’d made such objections to his advice in the past, he told me it would be a waste of time to interview me and hung up. I’m sure he will find someone to quote who more closely matches his point of view on elder workers, which makes it important to speak up against the shameful tactic of most of the employment experts who in print and practice blame the victim.

Elder job seekers are invariably told to play the age discrimination game with the following advice:

  • Update your skills
  • Don’t list your college graduation date
  • Don’t list any jobs older than ten years
  • Use a “functional” not “chronological” resume
  • Be prepared for young interviewers to be shocked at your aged appearance after they’ve read your resume with no dates and assumed you are younger
  • Be sure you are well groomed for the interview

What’s wrong with this list? First, it is demeaning, but that is the least of it. These and similar directives (one “expert” recommends cosmetic surgery) from headhunters, recruiters, employment experts and job sites such as monster.com abet a real crime.

There are federal and local laws against age discrimination in the workplace that are flouted every day with a wink and a nod. When people who set themselves up as experts – many who consider themselves journalists - tell elders to hide their age, they are going along with a crime and in doing so, transferring the responsibility from the criminals – employers who practice age discrimination - onto elder victims of it. (“Well, if you give the actual year you graduated from college, of course they won’t hire you.”)

These people are telling us that we must lie or we will not be allowed to work no matter the law.

It’s much the same as the current debate on illegal immigrants. Whatever you believe their fate should be (stay or go), it is they who are taking the heat for usurping jobs Americans might or might not otherwise want. Meanwhile, their employers are allowed to reap billion-dollar profits on the backs of the immigrants who are paid slave wages.

And, according to a piece he wrote in 2004, the interviewer who hung up when I challenged his ageism believes that elders, like illegal immigrants, deserve no more than slave wages.

None of this will change until we – elders – demand to be treated as full citizens with all the rights and privileges we enjoyed before we committed the sin of getting old. What makes it harder than it would otherwise be is that being old isn’t the actual sin. The culture – employers, media, youth and beauty police, etc. – don’t really care how old anyone is as long as they appear to be young. These people are hypocrites even while blaming the victim.

Comments

Ronni,

I am new to your blog. Thanks for giving voice to what so many of us feel.

Ten years ago when I was 48, I applied for a job that I was very well qualified to handle. When I shook hands with my interviewer, I could see how shocked he was by my age. He proceeded to tell me about the job, ask a few questions and then came this clincher, "Do you think you would have any trouble relating to the employees you would supervise since they are in their 30's?" At that moment, the anger that welled up inside of me threatened to overcome my good manners. Then, I asked myself if I wanted to work in this kind of environment. I stood up and told this young man the following:

"Certainly I could work in this environment. The real question is why would I want to when it is so clear to me that knowledge and experience are not required for this job...furthermore, your question is illegal or do you not understand the concept of age discrimination". As I walked out, I turned and he was still standing there, mouth open...

My good manners dicatate that I write a thank you note so I did but must admit that it was rather scathing. Of course, I never got a reply!

Just because I have grey hair does not mean that I have a grey brain!

Marti

Ronni,

The thing that makes age discrimination different from discrimination against women or blacks is that most of the discriminators will, eventually, get to experience all of the same crap they are dishing out. I take great pleasure in that thought.

Ruthe

Interesting thoughts today by you and your commenters. So much of what we see today in the media is they keep going until they find someone who will say what they think others want to hear. What a time we live in. I think this culture used to respect the wisdom and stature that usually comes with age, but it sure doesn't appear to now.

Great post today Ronni and I love the comment by Marti. Before I retired, I witnessed and was victim to "suttle" age discrimination on the job, i.e. older, experienced workers not being invited to important meetings, no longer asked to participate in, or heaven forbid, head important projects, etc. Kind of gradually being more and more ignored. No wonder we retire as soon as we are eligible! (I worked for the US Gov.)

I am so grateful that my pension is enough to allow me NOT to be forced into finding a new job...for I know I would encounter age discrimination and I'd only get angry and frustrated.

Melinda

Hi Ronni,

I am new to your blog, also. I have found the job-hunting experience so discouraging and frustrating that I have simply given up.

I have found that the NYC job market is heavily skewed toward young people, illegal immigrants, and others willing to work for 'slave wages'. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, there are a very small number of highly paid positions in the city, mainly in finance - and a large number of very low-paying jobs in the service sector-bars, restaurants, Starbucks (I've worked there), healthcare, call centers (worked for one where everybody's salary was permanently frozen at $11/hr), etc. And this development mirrors job creation nationally, as we export more and more good jobs abroad. Employers just love offering these 'entry level' positions and could not care less about 'experience'- much less age discrimination laws.

I have over 20 years experience in the finance sector, but I have found it is almost worthless in today's job market.

I am planning to start collecting Social Security as soon as I turn 62 in 14 months.

And move out of NYC, and probably out of the U.S. to Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica or some other place I will actually be able to afford.

Like many I have been passed over for promotion on the grounds of my age - in my case quite openly and explicitly (it wasn't illegal just insulting)

Despite that I think I have in the end had the best of it, since soon afterwards I was made redundant and used that experience which comes with age to force a good redundancy/early retirement package.

It shouldn't have happened that way, but it did and I think the key factors in helping me adjust to the changes were again my age and experience.

Employers who pass over older staff are plain stupid. In business and commerce they will have to learn rapidly or fail. I'm not so sure how the public sector will cope since senior managers - in the UK at least - seem totally insulated from the realities facing the rest of the world because by and large they have got rid of those who weren't.

What frustrates me is that a ton of stories are already written before the journalist picks up the phone to do the first interview. Some half-baked idea gets cooked up in a story meeting, and then they just get quotes to fit in the blanks.

No new information can intrude. They're in too big of a hurry to change direction.

My husband is confronting the issue as he continues to try to find engineering work. He is 72 and employers can't understand why he would WANT to work when he can retire.

He knows the reasons for not being hired when he hears, "You wouldn't be a good fit," or "We already have three PEs."

He will continue to look, but I'm sorry to see him continually disappointed by the short-sighted interviewers and hiring managers who receive his resume from head hunters.

Keep up the good writing about this important issue.

Once again, Ronni...bravo for such an enlightening post!
Although never a victim of age discrimination myself, I find it as appalling as any other kind of discrimination.
I just love your bias analogies....brilliant!
After reading these comments, I can easily see this discrimination takes place much more than I was ever aware of.
And we need more people like you to stand by your convictions and tell reporters like that juvenile one where to go.

I am going to take a bit of an adversary role here to a point of discussion. I will be 65 in a couple of months so I am an “elder”. Secondly, I have had to travel most of my working career and when I reached the ripe old age of 50, I decided I wanted to stop traveling, get a non-traveling job and move back to my home state. I found it relatively difficult to find a job once I returned home because of my age, even though I had a wealth of experience and I was “only” 50 years old. Fact is, as we all know I would have been much better off to have only been 30 and not near as qualified.

The most “racist” remark I can think of when it come to elders usually surfaces in general conversation when an elders abilities are simply consolidated into only being capable of working for Wal-Mart as a “greeter”. I don’t know how many times when I was preparing to retire when people would ask how I thought I would manage life without working any longer and I would respond that I was looking forward to trying. The comeback remark? “Well, you can always go to work as a “greeter” at Wal-Mart.” Of course we would all then laugh - for effect. I remember thinking how completely hilarious that was in years leading up to retirement. Until the seriousness of that remark began to set in after I retired. It rolls up in a nut shell I think, exactly what a large segment of the population thinks of the elder population’s mental and physical capabilities.

Now I felt it necessary to say that so as to justify the fact I’m on your side and to help justify to some measure the following comments. Some of which some of you may not like. Not all elders who are looking for substantial employment should be out looking for substantial employment. Just like not all elders who can drive should be driving. Now, I know a lot of you aren’t going to like statement but we do have to be as honest with our individual abilities as we are critical of those who would simply deny us our abilities – simply based on age.

Yes, ageism runs rampant and I am as angry about that as the next elder. But I also have an obligation to myself and a potential employer to hold a light to my own abilities also. As with any issue regarding racism or prejudice, let us not forget that no one owes us anything. If we woke up in the morning and ageism was a thing of the past, many would feel they deserved jobs simply because of that, even though they were not capable of fulfilling all the job requirements. That is what gives fuel to our enemies. I have had several experiences working with folks older than I am right now, all of whom were more than qualified intellectually and experience wise to do the work – the problem was that some could not produce efficiently. They were slow and I suspect were more cautious about their final output because they perhaps thought it would be under closer scrutiny probably because of their age. There is a “catch 22” aspect to this subject also – if you get a job you will probably worry yourself into the grave over keeping it.

I also think one of the most important points we also have to realize, like it or not, is the reality that many employers are looking for someone who they think will be with them for years. For the most part, we can not offer that “mental security” to an employer. Yes, that is ageism but there is some reality to it also. And don’t respond by saying that no employee can give those assurances. I know that! But I also know that we have nature against us along with that prejudice mindset. We are much more likely to drop dead at any given moment, have health problems, or have some physical restraints.

I am simply trying to say that I think we have some personal obligations to meet in this crisis.

Okay…..now you can shoot me!

You certainly hit the nail on the head. About a year ago, I started a blog and website specifically for 50 plussers who were finding themselves marginalized in the work force. As a result, I have received many emails from 50 plussers who are discouraged by the age discrimination that certainly exists in the current marketplace. While repositioning your work skills can be disheartening for someone with a developed career history, ignoring the rampant ageism that exists would be like "disagreeing with the internet." Taking the opportunity to redefine your personal brand can make a significant difference in whether or not a 20-something or 30-something recruiter will look at your resume. Your comments will resonate with many readers. Bottom line: this demographic is very powerful and needs to refuse to take "no" for an answer by continuing to doggedly search for employment. The sad reality is 50 plusser will need to put in a far more significant effort (at least for the next 5 to 10 years until the management crisis is wildly out of control) to secure satisfying and financially rewarding employment than a 20-something who is being begged to take a management position at the local bank.

Hi all. I've just discovered this site and find it quite interseting. I am 70 1/2 years old, a husband, father, grandfather - - - and am starting a new career. I used to be a scientist-engineer, and recently earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. I've just finished "interning," working mostly with teens, and am now studying for the Psycholigy licensing exam. I also facilitate a mens' group, where we focus on transitions in life. It feels both scarey and exciting to be starting this new career. I'm looking fwd to blogging with you all.

all these comments are fascinating to me. they represent the many edges of the ageism problem. but we have no movement; we are not driven to organize ourselves into a political entity. so far we can be "bought off" with personal solutions. wasn't it the economic issues of gay couples with children, or with a seriously ill partner needing medical coverage that was the engine moving moving gay marriage to the front burner for lesbians and gay men?

there were already organizations within these communities, energetic orgs, ready to give voice to the needs. and us? we're another part of the civil rights movement adrift without leadership.

for me, that's a very good reason to identify ourselves as "elderbloggers"--as often as possible. is it a category on your site?

This is my first time here and boy, am I glad to find it! Ageism is demeaning, yes and try it when you're also black. You find yourself fighting on two fronts at the same time and everyone runs for cover in fear their support for you, taking a stand for what's right and honorable, will make them the next target. Maybe it's me, but whatever happened to having the strength of your convictions. Just my thoughts.

Now this is what I call a vibrant salon. Thanks Ronni.
I just got back online and am being pushed to the limits of my physical and mental energies reacting and responding to our elderblogger postings. (I'm soo proud of us!)
Both Claude: http://covonline.net/ and Naomi(aka Rabblerouser Elderblogger)http://www.alittleredhen.com/ had exceptional posts today re our inevitable issues.
Thanks to eveybody for the wonderful comments.

Ronni: You've touched upon a subject
that's an open sore with me. I have lived with all the things you've mentioned every day of my life. It isn't a nice way to live. I haven't given up yet -- mostly because I can't. Right now I work via a federal training program for elders where we earn minimum wage working part-time for non-profit agencies & a lot of nagging about why we aren't getting jobs surrounded by threats that we'll be thrown out of the program. I am frightened for my future as without a decent job, I have no future except starvation & homelessness unless a miracle occurs. A friend & I decided that we need to revive the Gray Panthers & hit the streets. What do you think?

Ronni: This is OT, but I wanted to know what all of you thought.

Q: If your kid(s) owned a two family and you could live in one of the units rent free, would you do so? Would you feel weird about it?

I was reading a post over on Renee Blodgett's blog about people considering whether or not having children would increase their chances of having a happier third age.

Here's what I wrote in response:

Something weird happened to the extended family between my grandmother’s time and my own. Now, if you’re with your parents past the age of 21, you’re a loser. Grandparents and extended families being a daily part of the lives of new parents and infants is no longer the norm (Grandparents who do are painted as and interfering, or it’s assumed that their kids are so poor they need the grandparent to be around so they can work — and that’s considered by many to be pitiful and something to be fixed, so that everybody can be Independent and live at cell-phone distance again).

Is it any surprise that nursing homes and “independence” (read: you're on your own) are growing just when the parents of young people who were reared in a society that said that anything other than independence growing up and rearing their own family was a shameful failure are growing older?

I own a two family, and I expect to have older family members living downstairs at some point. Welcome it, in fact. I want my extended family back. I have a nice garden and some Adirondack chairs that are just pining for some conversational occupants. I think modern family life is too lonely, too precarious, too expensive. I would love it if one of my kids had their family in the other unit and I could help with my grandchildren. What I don’t know is if anybody will take me up on it. Maybe that kind of family intimacy is too countercultural now.

(BTW: Might be hypothetical kids. But I'm interested in hearing from everybody about what they think about the future of extended family living, whether they have kids or not).

I can understand why many 50+ individuals are upset about the treatment they receive from human resource managers; however, I do agree that some of the problems have stemmed from the fact that many 50+ individuals have failed to keep themselves abreast of changes in their fields or put forth the effort to acquire the skills that are now required in the workforce. And I can attest to the fact that it is not easy to learn these new skills; however, it is advantageous.

Employers need people who do not view change in a negative light. And they need people who are willing to learn new skills. To learn the new skills and, depending on your circumstances, you may want earn a bachelor’s degree. You can also obtain a certificate in a field of expertise that is needed in today’s job market. I can tell you this because it worked for me. Because the year of my graduation is fairly recent, it probably did help me to get the interview. However, that's as far as it goes. You have to be willing and able to sell yourself and your skills to an employer. Sight unseen, I am sure that they thought I was significantly younger. The human resource manager even remarked about the dedication required to earn the degree. Even though she was significantly younger, she realized the pressure that someone would be under when they were taking classes, working full-time and caring for a home.

After discussing the prospective job opening, she gave me a month to consider the offer. I did, however, decide against taking the position due to the amount of time I would be traveling between Texas and Illinois. Not too long afterwards, my employer told me about a new position that would be available. Because it was about 45 minutes away, I accepted the promotion and after about 2 years in that position, I accepted another promotion. My new office was no more than 10 minutes from home. I have often wondered if the prospective employer contacted my company to verify dates of employment, etc. If so, my employer learned that I was more than willing to take my skills elsewhere and offered me a new position. Because this is no longer a society in which you can earn the gold watch after 30 years, you will need to update your skills on a regular basis. When experience and updated job skills are combined, everyone benefits.

Ok,
Here's my take.
They're all scared shitless.
Not us. Them.
They know we know the answers to the questions and situations they face everyday in their work world and don't want to find out THEY don't know. It's simple. People who have even a trace of fear of the unknown in an interview experience " unidentified anxiety." When this is present, the brain will avoid comittment or decision. The key (I believe) is to shift the paradigm and tell them how much you are looking forward to learning "new ways to do things" from them, giving them interview "control" and reducing fear of you. Express the hope that your experience (huge, of course) will represent an ancillary source that just might help speed business solutions up.

Let me tell you what it's like when you're a writer. As everyone knows, writers go on forever and often do their best work in old age, when they've lived long enough to observe the world through three or four generations. Their work is then in demand, right?
Wrong. An older person can't even get an agent, let alone a publisher. When my agent died, I wrote to 172 other agents and received the same answer from all: Sorry, your work is not for us. No hint about what's wrong with it, what do I need to change, just Forget It.
Too bad. We have a lot to say. We need a Gray Panthers or a Geriatric Liberation front to defend us.

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