One of the more brilliant victories in the ongoing effort to set people against each other in a scrabble for crumbs to distract them from the real issues has been the successful creation of an age barrier where young and old are set up adversarially, rather than being treated as groups which may have some things in common and grounds for working in solidarity. Age divides and ageism have always been an issue, but it seems especially stark right now as economic tensions create the ardent desire for new scapegoats, and new targets of anger. Legitimate anger over issues like joblessness is subverted into rage at other people, rather than the system that creates these problems.
One consequence of pushes to raise the retirement age and limit benefits has been a larger number of older adults in the workforce. Many of these people may not be actively excited about this, may not be choosing to remain in the workforce, but they don’t have any options. Entering retirement would expose them to financial hardship because they cannot support themselves. This is an especially big problem for people who were counting on pensions that evaporated, or who made investments they were assured were sound, only to find that those investments are no longer supported, and will not be providing any payouts.
Older adults in the workforce face a considerable amount of discrimination. It is extremely hard to apply for work as you grow older, which means that people tend to cling to the jobs they have, because they cannot afford to take the risk of seeking out a new position. Leaving work at 60 and trying to return at 61, for example, is very difficult. Employers may believe any number of things about older applicants, and these beliefs contribute to decisions not to hire older adults, because clearly they will pose a problem on the job, and we can’t be having that. While age-based discrimination is not legal, there are many reasons to refuse a job applicant, and these can be trotted out if a challenge arises.
So older adults stick with the jobs they have and are reluctant to leave them, even if they really want to retire. Some may actively want to make room for younger up and comers with reform on the mind, but cannot step aside because to do so would be to create hardship and poverty. They have to remain employed, even if they do not want to. The systems around them may keep them working long past their planned retirement age and possibly up until the point where they die, because they cannot survive independently. Because they see what is happening to their retired friends and they can read the writing on the wall when it comes to changes to their benefits, and know it would be too dangerous to retire.
Consequently, fewer jobs become available. Turnover drops, because people aren’t leaving established positions. Advancement up the promotion ladder slows and in some cases halts because more senior positions are not opening up. Middle-aged people can’t rise to more prominent positions and their younger colleagues are forced to the bottom of the ladder, if they can grab a rung at all. Companies are also, of course, shrinking hiring budgets, firing personnel, and making less positions in general available, which creates a significant job squeeze. People with training may not be able to get jobs in their chosen career areas, and joblessness among young people is at an extremely high rate right now.
This is often positioned as the fault of older adults. If all those old fogeys would just retire already, plenty of jobs would open up. Promotions would begin again. People could start to build careers and develop experience. The unemployment rate for younger adults would drop and more opportunities would become available. Which means, of course, that younger people should resent older adults for ‘taking jobs’ and ‘keeping them out of the workplace.’ Instead of a situation where workers could work in solidarity with each other to build connections and address inequalities, workers are pitted against each other; some younger people take out their rage on older adults, and some older adults naturally assume that younger employees are out to get them and are unfairly blaming them for a tense economic situation. A neat divide has been created and it is extremely difficult to bridge. Mission accomplished; rather than working with each other, people work against each other, tearing each other apart.
Job creation and the job market are complex topics, and simplifying the issue to ‘well there are just too many old people still working’ is not only wildly inaccurate, but actively harmful. Unfortunately, it’s a widespread belief, and there seems to be an attitude that older people should be compelled into retirement to provide more opportunities to young employees. It is assumed that younger people are more innovative, have more energy, work harder, are more adaptable. The end result is further marginalisation of old people in the workplace, including a reluctance to take advantage of their knowledge and skills. After all, they are the enemy, what could they have to offer?
The issue here is that too few jobs are available, and that opportunities can be especially limited for people with specialised training. That highly qualified people are competing for shrinking numbers of positions and facing the possibility that they may not be able to work in their chosen fields. This is far from the responsibility of older adults in the workplace, but blaming them for it sure is convenient because it obfuscates the larger issues very neatly.