On this Labor Day 2013, I feel a special kinship with those of my generation — late Boomers and early Gen Xers born roughly from 1954 to 1965, sometimes referred to as “Generation Jones” — who have been pummeled by this meltdown economy and who have faced age discrimination and bullying in their efforts to get jobs and keep them.
Journalistic set piece
Just last week, the New York Times ran an article by Michael Winerip that represented a common, set piece example of current American journalism, a profile of a once-secure middle aged worker for whom the bottom has fallen out. In this case it’s a man who was earning a very good salary as a mid-level executive for a supermarket chain, until he lost his job last October. While he was still working, he created a support group to help laid off workers get back on their feet. Now he’s taking part in the same group, except in a very different role.
And to make things worse? The man recently suffered a heart attack. Having lost his health insurance with his job, he now owes the hospital over $170,000 for a six-day stay.
Facts and figures
The Times article further gathers some key figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that:
…while the economy may be improving, a substantial number of older workers who lost jobs — even those lucky enough to be re-employed — are still suffering. Two-thirds in that age group who found work again are making less than they did in their previous job; their median salary loss is 18 percent compared with a 6.7 percent drop for 20- to 24-year-olds.
The re-employment rate for 55- to 64-year-olds is 47 percent and 24 percent for those over 65, compared with 62 percent for 20- to 54-year-olds. And finding another job takes far longer: 46 weeks for boomers, compared with 20 weeks for 16- to 24-year-olds.
There’s a ton of age discrimination occurring these days, but employers don’t have to worry much about facing liability. Here’s a piece of what I wrote earlier this year on this subject:
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act and its state law counterparts prohibit employment discrimination against job applicants and workers age 40 or over.
The excellent Next Avenue site recently ran a piece by Penelope Lemov titled “What It Takes to Win an Age Discrimination Suit,” but in reality it’s actually a sobering assessment of the difficulty of prevailing in such a claim.
Lemov notes that age bias claims have been on the rise since the economic meltdown in 2008…. Nevertheless, she aptly points out that “it has gotten harder and harder to win an age discrimination suit,” thanks to a combination of narrow interpretations of the law by federal courts and employers who are good at covering their tracks.
Bullied at work, too
Many middle aged workers who are fortunate to have jobs face what appears to be disproportionate levels of bullying at work. Earlier this summer I reported the results of a Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll that illustrates the problem:
The instant poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:
The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.
Mental health impacts
The mental health impacts on middle aged workers have been significant on an individual and collective level. As I wrote last spring, suicide has become a leading cause of death for middle aged adults, and rising prevalence rates are correlated with the severe downturn in the economy.
Unfortunately, these extraordinarily disturbing statistics have rotated off of our news cycle, when instead they should remain front and center as an example of what these years have wrought.
A Gen Jones Agenda
I feel like a lot of people in my generation have been thrown under the bus, through no fault of their own. Unfortunately there is little recognition of this looming tragedy in the halls of government or boardrooms of America. If they want to start paying attention, an agenda awaits them:
First, we need more good jobs at good pay. Large corporations currently are sitting on piles of cash. Corporate America, you see, has recovered from the recession, and then some. But this bounty has not translated into the return of jobs. The choice is clear, as I wrote earlier:
It’s not as if we’ve run out of important, meaningful work that needs to be done. If corporate America and Wall Street won’t create jobs despite their abundant earnings, then let’s tax their wealth and use the proceeds to put people back to work, fixing our bridges and roads, building connective public transportation systems, educating our children, providing affordable health care, safeguarding our communities, and caring for our elderly.
Second, we need to revive the labor movement. Good jobs at good pay have never come by accident. They often are the result of worker advocacy and negotiating, and labor unions are in the best position to provide that needed countervailing power in the workplace.
Third, we need innovative programs to help the long-term unemployed transition back into the labor force, such as this pilot program described by Adam Wahlberg for MinnPost.com:
The City of Minneapolis said this week that it is partnering with a Connecticut-based group called The Workplace to launch a job-training initiative geared toward helping veterans and unemployed individuals age 50 and older.
Called Platform to Employment (P2E), the program, which started in Connecticut in 2011, is now in 10 markets, including Chicago, Dallas, and Denver. P2E is designed to provide life skills in such areas as financial counseling, resumé writing, self-marketing, and stress-reduction, over a five-week period, before placing enrollees in jobs for an eight-week trial run.
Finally, we need to strengthen our age discrimination laws and to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill to provide legal incentives for employers to act better. Too many aren’t doing so on their own.
Repairing the damage done by the last five years won’t be easy, but these measures will put us in the right direction.
Note: I fully realize that my age cohort is not the only one to be heavily impacted by our current economic state. In particular, I remain very concerned about the prospects of younger folks who are graduating with heavy student loan debt, only to be offered unpaid internships rather than decent entry-level jobs. I’ll continue writing about that during the months to come.