Ageism and Unemployment: Skills and Experience Aren’t Enough

Ageism and Unemployment: Skills and Experience Aren’t Enough

By RA Monaco

Boomers have been left questioning their definition of happiness and self-worth while naively struggling to reinvent themselves for a job market that actively continues “hollowing-out” this entire stratum of society from the workforce.  

Today’s job market for older adults—specifically Baby Boomers—has become an almost mystical fabrication of America.   Ignoring the collective financial instability of an entire generation with misleading rhetoric about an improving economy focused on job skills, new technology and educational attainment white-washes the face of our political unwillingness to challenge the practices of unfettered capitalism.

Caught trying to hold on to what they have left and with few choices but to scramble for the crumbs that now fall off the economic table, older adults have been pushed head-long into a perception-reality gap.   A reality that ignores responsibility for the disproportionate economic harm to older adults with fewer years to recover from the Great Recession, while many still have children dependent on them, elderly parents needing their support, and bills and mortgages to pay.

Baby Boomers have been left questioning their definition of happiness and self-worth while naively struggling to reinvent themselves for a job market that actively continues “hollowing-out” this entire stratum of society from the workforce.   Among adults 50 years and older who have searched for a job in the last five years, 55 percent found their job search to be very difficult or at least moderately so, according to a AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs research survey.

In fact, according to the AP-NORC research survey, one in five Americans—that’s 20 percent—since turning 50 have personally experienced prejudice or discrimination in the job market or at work because of their age.

Companies Don’t Create Jeopardy by Discussing Age

The types of workplace discrimination experienced by people age 50 and older that by design, can be attributed to the unstated purpose of constructive retirement, include being passed over for a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.  Add to the list, receiving unwanted assignments or being passed over for certain assignments, including the opportunity to acquire new skills and access to training.   Yet, sixty percent of those ages 50 and older say they’ve had colleagues come to them for advice.Ageism Vertical

Reacting to the stresses of ageist hiring practices, Cliff Schmichow shortened his resume to include only the last 15 years of work history when he began searching for a job in 2010.  “The short resume and phone interview always got me a face-to-face” so they never got the idea that I was older until I walked in for the interview” said Schmichow.

“Believe me, you can tell that their expectations and what walked through the door were two different things” said Schmichow.  Having been a manager, Cliff knew none of the twelve companies he interviewed with were about to put themselves in jeopardy by saying anything about his age.

“In the phone interviews I just shined” said Schmichow.  The feedback over the phone was always that he was exactly what they had been looking for, “they were just thrilled and couldn’t wait to move onto the next step.”  “I always had the experience they wanted for the position” believed Schmichow, “but I know I wasn’t the age of what they wanted.”

The sixty-one year old Schmichow offered this insight to his thinking: “What I was banking on is that if I could get my foot in the door and they would talk to me, I always felt that my experience would trump anything else.  Well, I learned that’s not the case—experience doesn’t trump everything.”

Free-Market Ideology Places Greater Risk on Workers

The paramount concerns among Baby Boomers recently squeezed out of the workforce should be increasing sociopathic corporate selfishness, a free-market ideology that places greater risk on workers and blame-the-victim ideas that are being fostered by politicians of all stripes.  However, older adults are for the most part, a generation of workers who still believe in the pervasive unwritten social contract between employers and employees that rests on mutual loyalties and protections.

In a social media exchange about poverty and the blame-the-victim idea of consequences proposed by Paul Ryan’s recent “Expanding Opportunity in America” plan, Sara Shipman-Wallace’s frustrations boiled into the thread: “I have worked steadily for 43 years.  I’ve now been unemployed for 5 years.  It has to do with my age, not my abilities! Our societal norms say I have lost my intelligence and my ability to keep up.  The MBA I got at 60 (my second masters) debates that idea!  I am teaching the college kids in the neighborhood the fine points of computer usage.  I am better at using a computer than any of my grandkids!  I know at least 30 different software [programs]…Ryan is a moron!”

Exacerbated By a Culture of “Implicit Ageism”

Her frustrations signal a growing conflict between neoliberal economic trends that seek to turn every aspect of our lives into a commodity and older adults seen as unable to contribute to society and hence, dispensable members of the community.  The perils of being an older adult in America are seriously exacerbated by a culture of “implicit ageism” which, according to Yale University professor and researcher Becca Levy, is our feelings toward older people that exist without conscious awareness, intention and control.

Too innocently referred to as the Great Recession and accelerated by an economic malfeasance that sanitizes political accountability and excuses the absence of corporate social responsibility, collective indifference and ageism have become a daunting reality for older adults—Baby Boomers.

Older workers—presumably more expensive workers—were ushered out the door and purged from the workforce during the Great Recession primarily to increase corporate profits.  Sadly, this corporate greed ignores both the short and long term economic impact on the entire nation—to say nothing of the waste of a reliable workforce in their prime.  Equally important for America, is the foreseeable impact on public health.

“From a financial perspective there are certainly some advantages to getting rid of ageism,” said Professor Levy, pointing to research that shows those who hold more negative age stereotypes are more likely to be hospitalized.  In a recently completed study that looked at stress-related events and the stability of ageist stereotypes over a 10 year period, Levy found that the stereotypes were “pretty stable which points to the need to start thinking about interventions.”

Professor Levy participated in a Senate session to address ageist media marketing with actress Doris Roberts from Everybody Loves Raymond and world-renown gerontologist Dr. Robert N. Butler—who dedicated his life to research and societal awareness on issues surrounding population aging before his passing in 2010.  Aware of only two Senate sessions on ageism, Professor Levy doesn’t know whether there have been any subsequent Senate sessions on ageism in the workplace, but feels that “it would certainly be nice if there were some institutional forces to address ageism.”

Risk Shifting Ideology without Social Responsibility

When Dependable Auto Shippers (DAS) announced plans to shut-down company-owned terminals in 2010, Cliff Schmichow started looking for employment but what he found was ageist reality, “that everyone would love to have my experience if I was 20 years younger.”

However, it is Schmichow’s subsequent experience with this employer that is particularly illustrative of the risk shifting business practices that seized upon the timing of our slow economy to become—in the corporate vernacular—more “flexible” in the market place.

“You tend to let them play you because you have no other options at the moment” said Schmichow—“I had no choice as far as work wise.”  So, while DAS was closing the terminal in Chicago, Schmichow continued exploring the employment market and began doing some work for two of the partners who were starting up a related company—Vehi-Ship, LLC—to pick up a new contract shipping cars for the Ford Motor Company.   “I was working my full-time job with DAS so they had a smooth transition,” shutting down their terminals and realized that “what they didn’t want was for me to go to another company and have no one to run this Ford business because I was the only one running it in Chicago,” Schmichow explained.

So when DAS finally closed their company-owned terminal in 2011 “they created a job for me because it served a purpose for them,” said Schmichow.  “They had a new contract coming up with Ford and they needed to make sure that they got that new contract and that everything ran smooth.  Here in Chicago, I was their liaison—I was the one that dealt with everything at Ford.”

But the position Vehi-Ship created for Schmichow was as an independent contractor—avoiding the possibility of unemployment and with no benefits—tying his income to the number of cars shipped.  Once their Ford contract picked up Vehi-Ship hired an employee—younger of course—which Schmichow trained while he remained an independent contractor.   Eventually, Vehi-Ship began to renege on their promises to Schmichow.

As transportation terminal manager for DAS for 10 years before receiving notice from their Dallas headquarters that they were shutting down company-owned terminals, Cliff Schmichow estimates that he was one of three to four hundred employees terminated nationwide.  A company with estimated annual revenue of $80 to $100 million that was shipping more than 100,000 vehicles per year seized upon the slow economy as an opportunity to change their business model, terminating employees in favor of hiring independent contractors and using “certified partner facilities” in place of company owned terminals.

DAS’s large scale revamp and contract specific business spin-off approach rewrote long-term social contracts to increase their own flexibility while shifting risk onto workers—a new free-market ideology that assumes you’re on your own unless we can use you for awhile.

Why Aren’t Boomers Angry About Ageism and the Greatest Economic Crisis of Our Time?

Since the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating in 2011, positive economic news has not surpassed bad news according to the Pew Research Center which begs the larger question—why aren’t Boomer’s angrier about ageism, growing inequality and the greatest economic crisis of their lives?

The late John Steinbeck had some insight reasoning that many of this country’s working- and middle class “are temporarily embarrassed millionaires in waiting.”  In other words, Americans continue to be true believers who are unable to grasp the severity of ageism, inequality and their own lack of upward mobility until it has fully descended upon them.

America has become one of the least upwardly mobile nations in the developed world and that perception-reality gap has yet to come into vivid focus for older adults hoping to climb back into full employment as well as those in the middle who now earn 16 percent less than the national average.

The campaign to demonize government—the only tool that might restore or at least mitigate these prejudices and imbalances—continues to win, over the possibility of economic redress under a political class that ranks among the developed world’s least willing to respond.  In reality, Americans continue to delude-themselves into imagining that ageism and income inequality isn’t as bad as it actually is, or like Cliff Schmichow, that they can overcome the deeply ingrained “implicit ageism” that is part of American culture, if they can just get their foot in the door.

Despite the fact that 95% of all income gains since 2009 have gone to the richest 1 percent, Americans continue to deify unfettered capitalism.  Public perceptions are controlling and until the real problems and ultimate consequences of ageism and inequality for voters become conspicuous to all, we have no reason to expect that change will be pursed forcefully.Audience_2

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