Friday, August 12, 2011

New Work Expectations for Baby Boomers: An Alternate Universe

What I've been reading lately about changes in the wind for aging Baby Boomers seems positively surreal given the current economic situation. I'm talking about:

Proposals from Washington to raise the age of Medicare eligibility to 67 and make cuts in Social Security

A profusion of articles and books stating that traditional retirement is out and that Baby Boomers are happily planning to work until age 70 or beyond, some at fabulous "encore" careers with retirement deferred until Boomers become too frail and ill to work or until sudden death intervenes.

It makes me want to scream.

The reality these days (and, actually, for quite some time) is that many thousands of older workers are being fired, not hired.  If they find themselves unemployed, they face the longest period of unemployment of all job-seekers. And a number of employers are stating these days that the unemployed need not apply for available jobs.  Even if older workers are employed, they may be discriminated against on the job and when seeking a new position.

When I read articles and books advocating foregoing retirement for the joys of working until dotage or death, I wonder about the age and circumstances of the writer. I remember being 25, a staff writer on a national magazine and scoffing at a newly established pension plan.  "I'm never going to retire," I would say to anyone who would stand still long enough to listen. "Retirement is horrible. It's just sitting around waiting to die. Who would want to do that?"

What a difference time and experience makes. At 66, after 42 years of full-time work, I can well understand the allure of retirement.  And having spent more than half of those years working full-time in a career I loved and am still pursuing, I understand why some people who find satisfaction and joy in their work wouldn't want to stop just because they reach a certain age.

Working beyond the typical retirement age is fine for people who want to, most likely people who own their own businesses or have careers they love and find meaningful. There are a number of people who would gladly work into their seventies or beyond.

There are people who have to work longer than they expected due to financial problems or uncertainties or late in life children needing help with college.

And there are some people who would love to work longer, but they can't.

Some of these older workers who have been downsized out of their jobs long before they planned to stop working, would love to have the opportunity to work beyond typical retirement age if only they could get a job.

Being a throwaway in the job market can be a singular pain.

I'll never forget my Father's anguish when he lost his executive level job in a corporate merger when he was only 44. Although I always suspected that his drinking was a factor in his job loss and continuing unemployment, his spirit was destroyed by having a successful career cut short.

A dear friend's husband, with a Wharton MBA and 30 years of international corporate experience, also lost his job in a corporate merger when he was 57. Despite the fact that he had no negative traits -- didn't drink and had a solid professional reputation -- he also remained unemployed despite making job-hunting a full-time career. Although he never lost faith, and worked happily at temporary and part-time positions that paid a fraction of what he had once earned, the incredible value of his vast experience was overlooked time and time again.

Another dear friend, an award-winning journalist, was forced out of his job on the staff of a prestigious national newspaper after more than 30 years of outstanding work there because it was cheaper to hire someone younger, with less experience, to replace him.

Another journalist friend complained of the "creeping intern syndrome" where underpaid interns, working with no insurance on two year contracts, were slowly but steadily replacing seasoned reporters and editors at his newspaper. It was an arrangement that may have helped the financial bottom line -- but was a terrible thing for veteran reporters and young interns alike. My friend eventually retired early -- and hasn't looked back.

A particularly poignant workplace throwaway was Angie, who came to me as a patient when I was working at a psychiatric clinic in Los Angeles. Angie was 76 and until a few weeks before I first met her, had been working as a waitress at a popular upscale steakhouse. This was a job she loved, and she had worked at this restaurant for 45 years. She knew several generations of customers' families. She was lively, fit, attractive and looked many years younger than her age. But when new owners took over the restaurant, they decided they wanted a Hooters style waitstaff and fired Angie.  She had a lawsuit pending. But, in the meantime, she was seized by financial fears and grief at losing a job she truly loved. "I feel like I've been thrown away like a piece of trash," she told me, alternately wiping tears and wringing the Kleenex in her hands. "I don't have a husband. I don't have a family. My customers were my family."

The stories go on and on. I see neighbors here who were forced into retirement and who still mourn the loss of their careers. One man recently told me that his retirement happened when he arrived to clock in at work and found that his card didn't work. A security guard arrived to direct him to Human Resources and the news that his job was history.

If Boomers are going to be expected to wait until age 67 for Medicare and to work, quite routinely, to age 70 or beyond, something needs to change in the marketplace, and in society. Employers need to hire and retain older workers. Employers and society in general need to value the wisdom and knowledge of older people with their vast collective experience.

I'm not holding my breath waiting for this to happen. These are rough times for jobseekers and workers of any age.

The job market at the moment is squeezed at the entry level with young people having great difficulty finding permanent, full-time jobs and is squeezed at the other end as people over 50 have difficulty holding onto their jobs in the face of layoffs, downsizing and off-shoring.

In the current economy, jobs are at a premium.  This is not the time to demand that Baby Boomers linger in the work place when, for some, that already is not an option and when young people are having such difficulty getting their careers established.

For some Boomers,  those who have physically demanding jobs or ones that are simply soul-numbing, continuing to work is either not possible or not palatable. Retirement is the light at the end of the tunnel.

If the expectations for aging Boomers are changing, we need real options: jobs for older people who want or need to continue working, adequate retirement benefits for those who want or need to retire.  And older people need to be valued by society whatever their choices.

The labels need to stop. Retired people are not "greedy geezers." For the most part, they are people who worked very hard for 30 or 40 years or more and who are now living on a fraction of what they once earned. Most happily embrace their downsized lives for the freedom to do as they wish -- and quite often what they wish to do is to give back to society in a variety of ways, from caring for grandchildren to doing volunteer work in a number of venues -- schools, hospitals, libraries, animal rescue organizations, foster grandparenting and more.

And older workers are not, for the most part, obsolete. They're a valuable resource with a wealth of knowledge that can only come from experience. As a cohort, Baby Boomers are the most educated elders ever -- and are still young enough to have embraced technology. They deserve a chance to show all they can do.

In the meantime, expectations need to parallel the reality of aging Boomers' lives. 


  1. Thank you for another needed and informed article. Are those making these recommendations going to unclench their tight fists from hanging onto their legislative jobs of telling others how to live? Were any of them willing to forego their paychecks and perks while they manufactured the "debt-crisis" or even take a cut in their massive benefits to balance the budget? NO. I am sick of the demonization of people based on age factor. The Administration, Congress, and Government are not singular omnipotent entities, they are made up of human beings. The kind of government we have reflects the kinds of human beings who inhabit those institutions. Right now,it seems very poor excuses for people are running the joint and will continue to do so unless third parties take the reins. But, hopefully, not those influenced to cut off their noses to spite their faces as were the tea-partiers. I am also tired of the derogatory tone I hear some young TV pundits use when saying the words, "Social Security and Medicare". Do they and members of Congress not think that some truck can ever run into the side of their armmor-plated stretch limos, or any other illness or catastophe befall them to take away their comfortable lives where they must live among the rest of us unwashed? Yes, we must do something about the debt. But, We the People did not cause it? Those in Congress and Administrations current and past, did. They need to be held accountable by putting no "x" next to their names.

  2. Another "well done" post. During Bush I's recession, I was restructured out of a job I had held for 19 years as a 110% evaluated employee. Every power company office in the state of Florida was closed and phone bank locations took over replacing face to face customer contact. Two thousand people lost their jobs. I was 54. Everyone in the company my age was offered a buy out which I took. Soon the company had a wrinkless face.
    The interesting thing was not long afterwards, the company suffered a horrendeous brown out period right over Thanksgiving which angered hundreds of thousands of customers with birds in the oven.
    The situation had been mismanaged and a very high ranking official later told me that it was because they had let everyone go who "knew where the keys were."
    They just don't teach experience in college.
    So the young have the plum jobs at lower salaries due to the lack of experience and those seniors who still have to work are asking if you want fries with that. Not very pretty.
    Arkansas Patti

  3. Not very pretty at all, Patti. That's so horrible -- and so true. And Barbara, you're right that there does seem to be a sneer when some younger people talk about Social Security and Medicare. I think many of them just can't imagine being old or experiencing financial strain. I feel so blessed to be largely out of the workplace now in these times when workers of all ages are so used and abused, but still feel quite vulnerable to the whims of Washington and their plans for cuts to Social Security and Medicare and the rollercoaster that is Wall Street where my 401K resides. These are not good times to be old --or, for that matter, young!

  4. Dr. McCoy, Thank you so much for your visit.
    This wonderful article, today, is an extension of my conversation with my son, just this morning.
    He is 52 and had his high paying Director's position eliminated at a major private University. He has been unemployed for eighteen months and can't even get interviews. This highly intelligent man is no slouch. In his youth he worked as many as three part-time jobs while working on advanced degrees. Now he can't even get a part-time job with Lowes or Homedepot.
    As we spoke this morning, he was on his way to a free clinic with his social security number and proof of unemployment in hopes of getting some of his medication. We are fortunate to have such a facility.
    As he was arriving at the clinic he told me that if was full to overflowing.
    What is to become of this generation? Will they remembered as the generation that society dumped? I worry about his emotional and physical health.
    What to do? We offer emotional support and some financial support as well. He will no longer take financial support. I am going to refer him to your site. At least he will see it not just him and not personal.
    Thank you for what you do.
    Respectfully, Ginger

  5. Hi, Ginger. I'm so very sorry to hear about your son's employment troubles. It's heart-breaking. Here is a man who did all the right things, worked hard, was and is a responsible citizen and yet, he can't get a job. And to have such a thing happen in the early 50's is so horrible. It's so good that he has you for emotional support. That's so important. I've had some terrible experiences myself -- which I should have put in the post. When publishing began to change in the early nineties (and I had been a full-time writer my whole career -- with a Master's degree in journalism from Northwestern), I tried for a year to get a job at a publication, in public affairs, public relations, anything. I kept being told I was overqualified. One person said "So you can write books. Big deal. Can you write a press release? Probably not." Mostly, I sent out resumes with no response. Finally, i applied for a secretarial job at a school. It turned out that a psychologist I had interviewed for one of my books was working there and recognized my name. She advocated for me and I was hired and later promoted out of the secretarial position. When I went back to school to finish my doctorate in human behavior and then got a clinical psychology Master's for licensure as a psychotherapist, I went looking for jobs again. By that time, I was 55. Despite the fact that life experience is a real asset for a therapist, a lot of agencies weren't interested and hired younger people instead. One agency even had a health outreach program to at-risk youth and used one of my books as a primary resource and they still didn't want me (because I was older and they felt younger therapists would relate to the kids better). I was finally hired by a psychiatric clinic that had a staff of older therapists. We got no salary. While the office billed the patients' insurance $200 an hour for our services, we got $20 of that. We had no health insurance, no retirement plan and we worked terribly long hours. I finally got out of there after building up my private practice and after my brother, who is a physician and hospital administrator, helped me get a job at UCLA Medical Center. So I know how cold and frustrating it is out there. I really feel that so many employers suffer from extreme failure of imagination when they see a wonderfully qualified, highly educated person like your son. It's really a tragedy.

  6. I'm still waiting to hear more about those encore careers. I thought it would be so easy. I have great skills and job history. I am dependable and smart. Should be easy to find a great part time job, right? No such luck. I've been told that I would be bored at one job that would have been perfect for me. So many places want you to volunteer, work for free. No thanks. I have always been paid for the work I do and expect that to still be the case.

  7. So sorry to hear about your difficulties getting a part-time job, dkzody. Don't you just love hearing "Oh, you'd be bored!" or "You wouldn't stay" or "You're overqualified!" I can really empathize with your frustration about all that and also the opportunities to work for free. Like you need the experience! My personal favorite line I heard when I was job-hunting after getting licensed as a therapist came from a private school principal who had advertised for a licensed therapist who could do public speaking, college counseling and write information packets on emotional issues for parents and students. I was a licensed therapist, an experienced speaker, had nearly two decades of experience as a part-time college admissions officer for Northwestern University and had written nearly a dozen award-winning books for teenagers about health and emotional issues. She looked at my resume and said "You're pretty unfocused, aren't you? I'm interested in a real go-getter." Huh? I feel that the problem with lack of employment is not only a rotten economy but also the cluelessness, lack of imagination and just plain stupidity of some employers. I sure hope you find a decent job soon!

  8. This is so true. My DH was a well-regarded editorial illustrator and graphic designer for our large city paper. He was in charge of editorial illustrations and won many awards over a 25 year period. Then the paper "restructured" and he lost his job. He is now 58 and has been working at TSA for several years. Only job out of thousands he applied for he could get. He gets up at 2 am to start his shift and after being so well regarded in his previous career, he is still not over it. He tells me many of the people his age had very interesting previous careers in management, law, education and the like. He is still not over having lost his "dream job" but has the one in TSA to help pay the bills :(

  9. Losing one's dream job is devastating and I'm so sorry your DH has been through this, Terry. While it's good he has a job to pay the bills, I know it's a real loss for him not to be doing what he so loved. My best to both of you.

  10. Boy, I needed to read this today. Not a week ago, not next week.

    Yesterday (after six weeks of anxiety, everyone thinking "will it be me?") our new management laid off 10 people, include the woman who is my "right arm" and helps complete me in my work life. She is 59, kids in college, needs the job and was incredible at doing it. We also lost two producers, both who have children -- some very young -- both of whom have medical issues in their families and who will be uninsured. A little younger, but I'm not sure if they're any more marketable in today's society, despite their outstanding skills. Seven others, all with stories, families or single, many well over marketable age.

    As you can imagine, yesterday little was accomplished by anyone -- we were all shocked for our colleagues, needed to be present to support them, listen, guide them to areas that can help.

    I have several friends (including Rick) who said that ultimately, being laid off (or fired) was the best thing that ever happened to them, it led them to their path. But the economy was better then, and they were younger. As I have been working through a new work limbo leading up to this, one always thinks "I don't want it to be me" and yet wonders, "How would I work without them?"

    And now, it's not me and how WILL I work without these people who are instrumental to my life? I don't know yet. We'll figure it out. I have to hang in there till 62 -- or more if my health doesn't degrade too quickly. I realized I want to explore the things I haven't on these last years of my life while I still can. But not stop working YET.

    Needless to say, I called the university counseling office and said, "I think I need to see you" -- and when I went through the list of why, the intake fellow said, "Yeah, it's time!" And I loved this guy on the phone. Just loved him!

    Right now, I have to help nurture and care of my colleagues. Survivor's guilt? Maybe. No, not maybe...

    If I can ever figure out how to write about this on so public a forum as my blog with grace, I will. Meanwhile, forgive me for using your spot to share. The short thing is that your words mean much to me -- words I'll share -- when the time is right. And thank you -- for your excellent point of view, marvelous examples and thoughtful post. Splendid.

  11. Please feel free to use my spot to share, Jeanie! Sometimes comments feel safer than one's own blog. What a stressful, sad experience for you the other day! I'm so glad you're both there for your colleagues and also taking care of yourself by going to the university counseling office. These are such rough times for all, especially those who are without jobs and insurance, but also those who are working and worried. And retired and worried that it may all be taken away. Thanks so much for your kind words! I'm happy this was helpful.

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