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Last week, IBM fired 100,000 workers they deemed too old. Clearly, those who make these decisions today will be those affected tomorrow.
A few months ago, I was at a function talking about the rapidly rising rate of homelessness amongst older women (the fastest-growing group is women over 55). After I had finished my presentation, a young woman rose to give the official thanks. She used her time – as is her right – to spruik the organisation who was putting on the event.
However, at one point, she blithely remarked that she was particularly ‘proud’ that all the staff working in her department were under 27.
For me, it was a face-palm moment. Everything I had been saying about the difficulty older women – and men – have in getting and keeping jobs, the desperation they feel when forced onto Newstart, and the subsequent spiral into poverty and homelessness, had passed her by.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for employing young people. I am all for employing every kind of people, to be honest with you. That wasn’t my problem with her remark. It was that she was ‘proud’ of it. Her pride confirmed that many employers – far too many, in fact – see young staff, young customers, young managers as an aspiration: something to boast about. I doubt I will ever hear an employer say that he or she are ‘proud’ that the average age of their employees is 67 (or 57, or 47 or even 37).
In fact, many employers seem to be in an unedifying hurry to shed workers once they reach a certain age.
Last week, in the US, documents were filed in a legal battle over claims IBM had fired as many as 100,000 workers simply because they became too old, and did not fit the computing giants attempts to update their brand image and increase their ‘cool’ quotient. All those young things in brightly-coloured T-shirts in Apple stores have a lot to answer for. Actually, to be fair, they have nothing to answer for. They don’t make the rules. They are simply benefitting from them – for now.
Last week, in the US, documents were filed in a legal battle over claims IBM had fired as many as 100,000 workers simply because they became too old.
Indeed, that’s the central foolishness of this unquestioning worship of youth and contempt for all things – including people – that are old. All forms of discrimination based on characteristics people cannot change – race, gender, sexual orientation, disability etc are fundamentally stupid but discrimination on the basis of age is gobsmackingly dumb. After all, if we are lucky, we will all get old. Many of the young remind me of climate deniers in their attitude to getting old. They think that – if it happens at all – it will happen so far into the future it’s not worth thinking about now. I know this, because, like all older people, I was young myself once and thought the same. Now I know how very wrong I was. If you are young and reading this, mark my words, you will get old faster than you ever thought possible. The speed of the journey will make your head spin!
And it’s worth remembering that next time you are tempted to discriminate against someone purely on the basis of age. That old codger, bag, fool, battle-axe, dear – choose your own demeaning descriptor – will be you one day soon.
Older people are no different from any other group of people. They are not necessarily better – some may have learned some important things along the way, some may not – or worse. What they do have to offer, however, is experience and maybe that’s a bit challenging for employers, many of whom seem to prefer creating a cult rather than a rational workplace, open to many opinions including critical ones. You are a little less credulous when you get old and you must forgive us for not finding it easy to manufacture enthusiasm for ideas we’ve seen tried and fail before.
I do sometimes think there are no new ideas, just old ideas that seem new to the person who has just thought of them. But it’s not only our experience that is going to waste when you ignore, fire or fail to hire older workers. It’s also our energy and delight at being able to contribute. We may not be as uncritically enthusiastic as many of the more idealistic young (ask yourself why the old are less idealistic, by the way, there’s a clue there), but we are grateful for the job.
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Older women, in particular, free, at last, of the threat, burden and joy of their biological purpose, may finally have the time and the confidence to put their skills, knowledge and energy to use. Yet, what do they find as they walk back out into the world after caring for children – if they’ve had any, or ageing parents, or anyone else who needed it (caring work is disproportionately shouldered by women) – sleeves rolled up and raring to go? That they have been deemed too old.
The tragedy of ageism is that – like every other prejudice – it has real-life effects on real people. Affecting their ability to earn a decent income, live a reasonable life and continue to make good use of their skills and abilities. Feeling invisible, irrelevant and unnecessary does not make getting older any easier and poverty makes it unendurable. The largest single group of people on what we derisively call ‘Newstart’ are people over 45 and they are more likely to rely on it for longer than younger recipients, precisely because of entrenched beliefs about the value of the old.