You might not know it from all the profiles of fresh-faced Silicon Valley executives and whiz kid millionaire teenage investors, but last year, a full 35 percent of the United States population was 50 years old or older. And when it comes to jobs, crossing that Five-O mark brings some very unwelcome challenges. In 2018, a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons found that nearly one in four workers 45 or older have been subjected to negative comments about their age, and three in five workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
Carole Cox, Ph.D., a professor at Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service, has spent her career studying gerontology and social policy, and in 2015, she dedicated an entire chapter to employment and retirement in her book Social Policy for an Aging Society: A Human Rights Perspective. Ageism remains the last form of discrimination that’s widely accepted in our culture, she says, and it’s critical that we overcome it if we want to grow and thrive as a society. Listen here:
Full transcript below:
Carole Cox: Employers have gotten very smart. They will never say to somebody, you’re too old or, well, we don’t think you can do it because of your age. That would immediately be discrimination, just as if you said, well, I’m sorry I can’t hire you because of your color.
Patrick Verel: You might not know it from all the profiles of fresh faced Silicon Valley executives and whiz kid millionaire teenage investors, but last year a full 35% of the United States population was 50 years or older. When it comes to jobs crossing that 5-0 mark brings some very unwelcome challenges. In 2018, a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons found that nearly one in four workers 45 or older have been subjected to negative comments about their age, and in three and five workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
Carol Cox, a professor at Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service, has spent a career studying gerontology and social policy. In 2015, she dedicated an entire chapter to employment and retirement in her book Social Policy for an Aging Society, A Human Rights Perspective. “Ageism remains the last form of discrimination that’s widely accepted in our culture,” she says, “and it’s critical that we overcome it if we want to grow and thrive as a society.” I’m Patrick Verel and this is Fordham News.
Now, you recently took to task a columnist in the New York Times for writing an article saying that the aging of the population is having a dire consequence on the American economy. Why?
CC: Well for one thing, even though our population is aging along with the rest of the world because aging is now a global phenomenon, there’s more people reaching older years, ages 60 and over, than probably being born in most societies, but one of the things that we know, particularly in this country, is that people are aging healthier. In fact, we know that we talk now about 80 is the new 60, 60 is the new 40, so we have expectations and it’s true in a sense, people are definitely living healthier for a much longer period of life. In fact, it’s only in the last couple of years of life that we talk about the expenses of an older generation and the healthcare of older people. It’s really only in the last few years of life that these expenses get to be very, very high. For instance, when a person’s in a nursing home or needs a lot of intensive care, that is really a very condensed period of life. It’s not the entire age limit.
People are living healthier longer, which means they also are contributing more. In many ways they are actually a part of the social capital in our country. They are providing incredible volunteer work, often in terms of families. It’s the older adults, the grandparents who come in and do babysitting and childcare, which is incredibly expensive in America and help out with their children and the grandchildren and become dependent upon, so that in itself is a contribution.
They do a lot in terms of the community. Older people are the ones who take on many the jobs, the volunteer jobs, that others aren’t, so they’re doing tutoring in schools. In New York City, we have a whole group of older adults who do the main type of volunteering in the schools with students. They help with SAT tests. They help with getting kids ready for succeeding in school, doing many, many types of volunteering there.
Another thing about older adults is that they tend to have more disposable income than younger generations, which means that they have more money to spend on consumer goods, more money to spend on vacations. They have a lot of spending power and this also is important for our society. When they say it’s having dire consequences for the economy, that’s really such a discriminatory stereotype, which doesn’t look at really what the worth of having older people in the society is.
PV: It’s so interesting you talk about that notion that 40 is the new 30, or 50 is the new 40, or whatever you want to say, that this is the new blah, blah, blah. That basically has not permeated the workplace culture is what it sounds like, but it is something you hear about all the time in the popular culture.
CC: Of course. Of course. In fact, when you look at commercials on television, you see so many of them now sort of showing older people on their bicycles and older people traveling and all, which says, hey, they’re there and they’ve retired, but they’re not ready to sit back and knit. They are contributing, they’re doing something, they’re active, they’re involved.
PV: Why is it harder to prove in court that you’ve been a victim of ageism in the workplace as opposed to being a victim of racism or sexism?
CC: Because employers have gotten very smart. They will never say to somebody, you’re too old or well, we don’t think you can do it because of your age. That would immediately be discrimination, just as if you said, well, I’m sorry I can’t hire you because of your color or because of your sexual orientation. Boy, you’ve got a real case.
They cloak it. You just don’t have this. We need somebody who can travel more or we need somebody who has had more computer skills or a longer time doing certain kind of programming or something. They find another way of discriminating cause you cannot use age itself. Even without hiring, if you go to look at training within corporations, they have a tendency not to provide so much training for people at a certain age, but it’s very difficult to say you didn’t get that training because of your age. Employers are very smart. They can say, well, you didn’t get the training because we want to keep you in this certain area or something. You can always find a reason. As long as you can find other reasons, it’s hard to prove age discrimination.
I think AARP did a study, 23% of all the charges in 2016 in terms of discrimination in the workforce. That’s almost a quarter of the claims were about age discrimination, but only 2% were able to sue. Just last week or in January, the House of Representatives passed a new bill protecting older Americans against discrimination and employment act. This means, the House in this bill, people are given the right to sue, even though age was not mentioned if they have enough evidence to believe that it was age that kept them from being promoted or hired or whatever. It was passed by the House. It goes to the Senate. Nobody believes that it’s going to pass the Senate and the White House is already said that they won’t sign it.
PV: Have they said why?
CC: They believe that the reason being that it’s going to open up to a lot of frivolous lawsuits.
PV: I mean, it’s interesting. I mean, given the fact that baby boomers make up such a huge percentage of the population and they’re now hitting their seventies, I would imagine this is a topic that would be getting, I mean it’s kind of a winner, right? But do you feel like there is any kind of movement on this in general?
CC: Some companies do seem to pride themselves on it and particularly where you need really skilled workers.
PV: Can you give me an example?
CC: Right. Well, BMW is a major corporation which has started making some changes. It’s made the production line easier to accommodate older employees. It’s focused on hiring older accountants, so it’s making an effort and one of the reasons is that they have begun to realize that these people have skills, they have the experience they can really contribute to the company.
One of the things that we find and the data shows that older workers don’t leave. Where a younger person at 30 or 48, certainly in their twenties and their thirties, they take a stepping stone. They go from one job to another job to another, and with it they’re taking their experience and their skills to another company. Older people, once they’re there, they stay. Often they have a lot of experience, a lot of skills that they can continue to use. BMW is one of the companies that comes out as one that’s just really making a point, even in terms of their accounting, to hire older people because they are steadier there.
There is a myth that older people take more time off because of illness and they don’t show that at all. If we look at even the fast food industry, for a long time McDonald’s was making a point of hiring older workers because they stay and they take the job more seriously. There are some changes happening in the workforce. Even if we look at computer skills, computers have been around now easily since the 70s, even earlier. To say that somebody doesn’t have the skills for high tech doesn’t make any sense because they’ve been using them for a long time and because they’re skilled in it, it doesn’t take that long to learn a new program or new software. They can pick it up. As long as people are motivated and they want to do it, age does not become a factor.
PV: That brings me to my next question, which is the tech sector. In 2007, I couldn’t believe this when I actually saw this, that this was a real thing, that Mark Zuckerberg actually said with a straight face, “Young people are just smarter.” Has it gotten any better?
CC: Well, and Mark Zuckerberg is the one who’s not going to change Facebook at all, even though he knows the ads are false and true and lying and all that.
PV: Yeah. Talk about somebody who’s not willing to change.
CC: Right, right. Does that have to do with his age? I mean, this is not anybody I think we need to take as a pillar of wisdom in our society.
If we look at just the candidates for president now, I would say at least what? Five of them are over the age of 70. Are you going to say that, I’m not going to get into personalities here, but age alone is not something, which is saying that people aren’t smart. It’s the same thing with the Supreme Court Justices. Personally, I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the most intelligent people there is. She’s in her eighties. The tech sector themselves, there’s got to be people in their forties.
PV: Yeah. When you would start the first to really kind of run into this problem.
CC: Yeah. They’re aging. Now, maybe they do want to leave. Maybe they’ve all got enough that they don’t need to stay there.
PV: We’ve been talking a lot about different companies and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the differences between the United States and other countries around the world. Are there any that you think are good models for us to look to?
CC: Sweden actually has an ombudsman, which goes out to companies. If somebody says, I think I may have been ignored or I’m not being promoted or whatever, and begins to investigate the complaints. Unlike the U.S., where complaints are just disregarded or pushed off. There, they’re really tying to take action. The Netherland has a whole checklist for employers and for human resource people to complete to make sure that they understand what is age discrimination, that to make sure that every job which is being advertised is screened against age discrimination. Ireland also has an initiative within the workforce to mainstream people to keep age discrimination out of the workplace.
Some are developing Belgium, for instance, is one of the countries that’s really working to develop what they call age-friendly workplaces, so that older people stay in the workforce and actually transfer their knowledge to younger employees. If you are very experienced and you’ve done the data, developed a whole all of the data and the software for something 25 years ago and it’s really working and you have new people coming in, you want to make sure that they understand and they have gained the expertise that you have. Rather than starting always anew, they are really trying to keep people in.
One of the things I liked that they said in Belgium and they’re trying to get more older workers involved, there is no age for talent and that’s a wonderful statement.
PV: What makes you optimistic about things here in the United States?
CC: I tell you what makes me optimistic is that there’s a lot of older people who want to stay. They’re not ready to go off and play golf or do whatever else, start painting or something. They really want to be engaged and they have experience, they have knowledge, they have brains, they have as this one said talent, and I just think it’s going to be a mesh. I think that they are going to want to stay and companies are going to say, hey, we can’t just keep getting rid of all these people. This is a big part of the workforce now.
It also, if you think about it, if you’re 45 or 50 and you see that a company where you’ve been for 20 years is immediately starting to push people off in their sixties and that’s not that far ahead for you. You’re beginning to think, well, what’s going to be my future here? It does give people a greater sense of continuity, security that they are able to stay and have a future in a company and they become more committed. I’m being listened to. I can keep working up.
I think it’s quite interesting because if you go to certain professions like law, people don’t discriminate. Oh, he’s too old, right? No, you don’t discriminate about a lawyer. Same thing with a physician. You would not want to go so easily, so quickly to a physician who had just came out of medical school compared to a surgeon, for instance, who’s been doing this for 30 years and has that experience to know, okay, this is what I found and this is what we should be doing. I think that’s going to impact a lot, a lot of the workforce. I’m optimistic.