“We need to see you in the conference room.”
He hadn’t yet taken a sip from his morning coffee. This was not a good omen.
Waiting for him were his direct supervisor, the president of the company and the head of human resources. The president would do all the talking. The others were just there as witnesses. This was for legal reasons.
“We’re making a few changes around here,” the president began. He didn’t need to hear the rest. He had given the same pointless rationalization to dozens of employees he had to fire over the years. There’d be a small severance package for him. Beyond that, he had 20 minutes to clear out his desk and leave the building, during which time the human resources chief would escort him every step of the way.
Since when did being 55 mean being unemployable?
“I need to check my computer for the train schedule,” he said.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” she replied.
And thus, just four years from retirement, 23 years of dedicated service to a company he helped grow comes to an end. With two kids in college, a third in high school and a mortgage to pay, my neighbor and good friend was left on his own to figure out how to make it all work.
Individually, this would be just another sad story, but he’s not alone. My brother, 59, was fired in July from the company he founded. Another neighbor, also 60ish, was let go from the downtown law firm where he worked. And another friend, also middle-aged, was fired last week from the construction company he helped manage.
These are more than just personal observations. What I’m seeing is a trend.
Yes, the economy stinks. Unemployment remains high, wages are stagnant and unless you’re a hedge fund manager or a member of Congress your standard of living has likely fallen. I’ve noticed jobs that used to be entry-level work for teenagers or college grads are now staffed by boomers. The guy flipping burgers at the fast food joint where I eat is my age. Same with the bagger at Whole Foods and the clerk at Wal-Mart.
My brother, my friends and millions of others face a world of diminished expectations. They know the prospects for finding a job, much less a job that pays anywhere near what they earned before they were laid off, are slim. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the reemployment rate for 55- to 64-year-olds is 47 percent and for those over 65 just 24 percent, compared with 62 percent for 20- to 50-year-olds. For boomers who do find work, two-thirds make less than they did in their previous job, with a median salary loss of 18 percent, compared to a 6.7 percent drop for 20- to 24-year olds. According to one survey, 62 percent of 45- to 60-year-olds reported plans to delay retirement, up from 42 percent in 2012. For many, retirement isn’t even an option.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, my father got a job hoisting 100-pound bags of cement into a giant hopper where it was mixed with limestone and water to become concrete. He worked his way up to truck driver and 40 years later retired as company president. That story now seems quaint.
Today, nearly half the workforce changes jobs every year. Workers can expect to change careers an average of five times over their lifetime. The old social contract where ambition, hard work and loyalty were rewarded with the opportunity for advancement and job security became a relic of a bygone age after the financial crisis. Today it’s shredded. Just ask the thousands of retirees in Detroit who learned in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy filing that their pensions may be cut. Promises have been broken. No one is secure.
From a company’s viewpoint, older workers are more expensive. They generally earn more than their younger counterparts, they’re more expensive to insure, and they’re less able to relocate or change assignments. While age discrimination laws make it illegal to fire someone on the basis of their age, companies have plenty of ways to work around this. Since 2007, the number of age discrimination filings logged by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has increased almost 20 percent to 22,857.
Since when did being 55 mean being unemployable? These are our most experienced employees, workers who are the core of a company’s institutional memory and who might help mentor younger colleagues. These are workers who still have much to offer, who don’t want and really can't afford to retire. And guess what? There are going to be more of them. Lots more.
An issue doesn’t become real until it becomes personal, and for me this issue has become personal.
Some will have no sympathy for the plight of the unemployed boomer. After all, they got us into this mess: The spoiled offspring of the “Greatest Generation,” whose parents lived through the Depression and won World War II, who grew up weaned on television and a sense that an increased standard of living was their birthright. They became “Yuppies,” failed to learn the lessons of the Savings and Loan crisis and the dot-com bust, then went on to speculate in real estate.
Such thinking may offer some moral gratification, but it does nothing to really explain or solve the problem of chronic joblessness and underemployment in this country. Comparing the predicament of unemployed boomers to unemployed college grads or unemployed inner-city youth only serves people who profit from divisiveness. My father’s generation didn’t succeed because they endured more privation, worked harder or were more patriotic. They succeeded because there were jobs available for anyone who wanted to work. Part of this included policies instituted to ensure the suffering of the Great Depression wasn’t repeated — things such as Social Security, public projects, the G.I. bill and labor unions — policies that came into being because of a national outcry for relief. An issue doesn’t become real until it becomes personal, and for me this issue has become personal. My guess is that it has become personal for a lot of people.