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Baby boomers, out of workforce, can find it tough to get back

Concerns that an older worker may be less

Concerns that an older worker may be less likely to take supervision from someone younger can be a subtle form of age discriminiation. Credit: Getty Images / Abel Mitja Varela

Dale Kleber had a straightforward trip up the economic ladder. He went to law school and worked his way up to general counsel of a major food distributor in Chicago and then chief executive of a dairy trade organization. He is putting his third and fourth kids through private college.

“Our generation was pretty spoiled,” says Kleber, 60. “We had it good. The economy was in a huge growth spurt. Some dips here and there, but nothing severe.” But a couple of years ago, Kleber hit a roadblock. He’d left the dairy group and started looking for another job; he and his wife didn’t have quite enough saved to retire comfortably. He didn’t think he’d have trouble finding work. Scores of applications later, with few callbacks and no offers, Kleber is close to admitting defeat — and admitting that age discrimination might be one of the biggest challenges his generation has faced.

One job posting, from a medical device company, seemed to suggest Kleber’s lack of success wasn’t just due to a tough job market: The ad called for a maximum of seven years of legal experience. He applied anyway and, after being passed over, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging age discrimination. The case is in the discovery phase in federal court in Illinois.

“They expressed concerns with an older person being less likely to take supervision from someone that’s younger than they are,” Kleber says, paraphrasing the company’s response to his suit. That disagreement goes to the heart of the awkwardness that baby boomers are now feeling as they enter the last years of their working lives.

Often needing to stay in jobs longer than they anticipated, they’re coming up against a strong preference in America for youthful “energy” and “innovation.” That bias is so common, we frequently don’t recognize it. Formal age discrimination cases like Kleber’s spiked during the most recent recession. Long-term unemployment, defined as being jobless for 27 weeks or longer, is markedly worse for workers over age 55. At a time when conditions have vastly improved for women, gays, disabled people and minorities in the workplace, prejudice against older workers remains among the most accepted and pervasive “isms.”

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ended some of the most egregious forms of prejudice, such as age limits for flight attendants and mandatory retirement ages for factory and mine workers. At the same time, structural, economic and demographic changes have created new types of ageism that are more subtle and widespread. One change is the presence of two large, culturally distinct generations — millennials and boomers, both about 75 million strong — that have found themselves in the workforce with less and less formal authority.

Older workers have the misfortune of wanting to work longer just as a new generation is trying to get an economic foothold. In a weak economy, companies are sometimes all too happy to dump veteran employees, with their higher health care costs and legacy pensions, for younger ones who expect neither.

Adding to the discourse is the perception of boomers by millennials. In a 2015 survey by the Harris Poll, for example, 65 percent of boomers rated themselves as being the “best problem-solvers/troubleshooters,” and only 5 percent of millennials agreed. Fifty-four percent of millennials thought boomers were the “biggest roadblocks.” Sometimes these perceptions come straight from the top: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once said “young people are just smarter.”

One researcher, Michael North, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says younger people tend to resent it when older workers don’t “get out of the way” and retire. Over-50 job seekers are advised to update their wardrobes and hairstyles, purge their resumes of positions held during the Reagan administration and, above all, “show enthusiasm.”

Federal anti-age-discrimination laws haven’t proved to be an effective deterrent, says University of Houston professor emeritus Andrew Achenbaum. Proving you were passed over because of your age is devilishly difficult, and the EEOC has a large backlog of complaints that it hasn’t had the resources to deal with.

Ashton Applewhite, creator of the blog Yo, Is This Ageist?, says that 74.9 million boomers should be at an advantage when shifting the discourse around aging. “Baby boomers are starting to realize that we are actually going to have to get old. So there is this sudden awareness — we have an unusual sense of demographic weight.”

North contends successful companies will find ways to accommodate the needs of people nearing the end of their working lives, such as part-time schedules to help them transition rather than drop out. “Companies really should be taking stock of these demographic trends,” researcher North says. “There’s tremendous value to be had there.”

For his part, Kleber thinks he’s a better hire than he was 20 years ago. He’s had time to keep up on professional reading and stay in better shape. “I think the stereotypes about older workers are a little misleading, because the reverse might be true,” Kleber says. “I’ve got a good 15 years in me at least.”

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