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Age Bias Getting Old

January 7, 2019
Age Bias Getting Old

When you dive into popular literature on retirement, you could be forgiven for thinking there are hordes of Americans in their late 50s or early 60s, desperate to leave the paid workforce as soon as they can. Blog posts and academic studies beg people to hold off on collecting Social Security until the age of 70, so they can maximize their benefits. There is Bloomberg Businessweek’s article, “Not prepared for retirement? Here’s a solution. Don’t retire.” And Inc.’s “Want to Retire Early? Here are 3 Reasons You Probably Shouldn’t.” Few listen. The most common age to file for Social Security is 62. Why? Well, many of these people are likely victims of age discrimination. That’s the searing conclusion that can be drawn from a joint Urban Institute-ProPublica analysis of data from the Social Security Administration and National Institute on Aging’s joint longitudinal Health and Retirement Study. A majority of workers over 50 are likely to be shoved out of their jobs. The damage to their bottom line often is permanent. When many find new positions, they often are jobs significantly below their skill levels and previous pay grades. The retirement prospects for many younger baby boomers and members of Generation X look dismal, as the shift from workplace pensions to the do-it-yourself 401(k) has left millions of people without the resources to maintain even a semblance of their current lifestyle in retirement. As a result, surveys say a majority of Americans plan to work well past the traditional retirement age. Age discrimination never has been easy to prove, and a 2009 Supreme Court decision has made it much more difficult. Before the ruling, a plaintiff needed to show that his age was among the reasons he had been targeted. The court significantly toughened the standard, forcing future plaintiffs to demonstrate their age was the main or determining reason for their employers’ behavior. In other words, workers have to prove that, as lawyers like to say, the action wouldn’t have happened “but for” their age. It’s an extremely difficult standard to meet. “It’s rare for an employer to say, ‘I don’t want to hire you or I am going to fire you because you are too damn old,’” says Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with the AARP Foundation. Yet, despite the fact that they are more likely to vote than their younger peers, Americans over 50 aren’t putting significant pressure on politicians to do something about age discrimination. Many seem to think it won’t happen to them till it does. This likely has much to do with self-help shibboleths in American culture, a belief we personally can surmount greater economic and social forces. Articles abound advising older workers to “Be a lifelong learner,” telling them “How to get a job if you are over 50” and suggesting they “Check Your Attitude.” As a result, Washington is doing little to help. Bipartisan legislation that would restore the protections undone by the 2009 Supreme Court decision sponsored by Democratic Sens. Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and by Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Charles Grassley of Iowa, languished in the most recent session of Congress. (Casey’s office says he plans to reintroduce the bill.) It’s also worth noting that health-care reform, full-on Medicare-for-all or simply offering buy-ins for people over 55, likely would combat age discrimination, because the higher cost of insuring older workers makes some employers reluctant to employ them. Enabling age discrimination is a moral embarrassment and an ongoing personal finance catastrophe. Perhaps the new Congress, where Democrats now control the House, finally can move to restore legal protections for older workers.

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