Losing the American Dream of Progress: Getting Fired at Midlife

Even though it is illegal, eliminating midlife workers has become a tacit business practice, putting the middle-aged in a difficult position


What is being under-reported in the official unemployment numbers is that being "too old" is a disastrous trend, extending over decades but worsened by the ongoing economic crisis. Losing midlife people from the workforce has dire consequences, and not only for them. It ruins the expectations of the young. It shreds the American dream of making progress over the life course.

Eliminating midlife workers, although illegal, has become a tacit business practice. According to one typical case that went to trial, an employer says, "We need young blood"; then employees over forty get fired (PDF). It's not just affecting the bluest of blue-collar workers, but also professionals and managers. Younger people are not only cheaper, but also less likely to remember what decent hours and wages and security were like. The number of age discrimination cases has risen almost every year since 1997, from under 16,000 people to 24,600 in 2008, according to the government's own data. An AARP litigator, Laurie McCann, believes the numbers represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Women suffer from age discrimination in their forties, ten years younger than men. Ironically, such women are the first cohorts to become higher-level professionals in large numbers as they get older.

Two years ago I got a distressing email from a friend who had learned computer skills in her fifties to start a second career. She couldn't find a job.

"I was interviewed only twice. Friends say my age is a main factor. What 36-year-old director of anything wants an assistant who is as old as her own mother? This has been truly depressing. Every application is an act of hope but I have been deflated so often, my pride bruised and my student loan still looms. I had not anticipated this problem. That was naive...."

She's still looking.

Many people have no idea how likely they are to lose out because of age -- which means they blame themselves rather than American middle ageism.

Among the unemployed over 45, half have been out of work "long term" -- more than six months. After 54, it gets worse. In February 2010, only 23.3 percent of youths had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer compared with 39.4 percent of "older" workers.

People who lose jobs at midlife typically earn much less afterward. Boomers -- so often touted as privileged -- have a ten percent poverty rate between the ages of 40 and 50, when they should be approximating their peak wage.

People who are long unemployed can lose homes. Sex life ends. Families disintegrate. Parents fear becoming dependent on adult offspring in old age. Some midlife adults move in with their elderly parents.

Health suffers. Of the 46 million people without health insurance, almost a fifth are Boomers between the ages of 45 and 64. They can't afford insurance. Many postpone tests and medical care. Not all make it to Medicare. Between the ages of 55 and 64, nearly 11 percent die, more than any other uninsured age group (PDF). Women and women between the ages of 45 and 54 have a rising suicide rate (PDF).

None of this is new. I call this pattern "middle ageism," because, at 40 and up, the victims should have long productive lives ahead. "Encore careers," indeed.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967) has not worked as a deterrent to illegal behavior. Its enforcement arm, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), finds for plaintiffs only three to four percent of the time. It sues on behalf of a worker even less, in under .005 percent of cases, according to Laurie Mcann of AARP. So meager a number of firings "for cause" suggests that it is "engaged in discovering where discrimination does not exist rather than where it does," in the words of Raymond Gregory, a lawyer and expert on these issues. Gregory's book, Age Discrimination in the Workplace: Old at a Young Age, explains in detail how the system turned into what it is today.

The Supreme Court, in Gross vs. FBL Financial Services (2009), made it almost impossible to win an age suit. Congress starves the EEOC, leaving understaffed investigators unable to do their jobs.

How could the destructive conditions of middle ageism be fought better?

In states with better civil-rights laws and remedies that can work around the federal system, it makes sense to ignore the EEOC and sue locally. Congress could better fund the Commission. It could over-rule Gross, giving age equal status to race and gender on the grounds of "disparate effects."

A single-payer insurance plan that did not penalize midlife workers with premiums two to four times higher than the young would prove that we value growing older.

Now, despite our boasted longevity, many Americans suffer from a viciously truncated working-life course. Younger people learn the value of the life course by observing their elders; What many are learning now is that they have less of a future than they thought.

The United States should be proactive in undoing this capitalist catastrophe. "Progress" in life could again mean gains in respect, ability to help adult children, and the assumption that experience matters. Seniority, broadly defined. The life course ought to be a story of progress that children can look forward to, workers can appreciate, and elders can look back on with pride.

Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.

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Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a cultural critic and nonfiction writer, an internationally known age critic, an essayist, feminist, and activist. Her latest book is Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America. More

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a cultural critic and prize-winning writer of nonfiction, an internationally known age critic, an essayist, feminist, and activist. Her latest book, Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, is called "important social criticism from a prominent scholar" by Publishers Weekly. Aged by Culture (also University of Chicago Press), was chosen a noteworthy book of the year by the Christian Science Monitor Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife won the Emily Toth award in 1998 for the best feminist book on American popular culture. Her first book in age studies is Safe at Last in the Middle Years.

Her essay, "The Contagion of Euphoria," won the Daniel Singer Millennial Prize in 2008. Other essays, frequently cited as notable in Best American Essays, have appeared in many literary quarterlies, including The Kenyon Review and Yale Review. Gullette has also written for the The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, Ms., The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, www.womensenews.org, www.alternet.org, www.salon.com, American Prospect, and American Scholar.

She has been the recipient of NEH, ACLS, and Bunting Fellowships. Quotations from her books appear in The Quotable Woman: The First Five Thousand Years. She is a member of PEN-America and a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.

For reprint permission, write to mgullette@msn.com.

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