Monday, December 26, 2016

The wonderful thing about age discrimination is that eventually we all get a chance to share the experience

[Following up on our previous piece on Dan Lyons.]

Though ageism has started getting more coverage, It is still almost invariably presented as a problem for the old (keeping in mind that, in this context, “old” is very much a relative term). This is a deeply flawed framework for what should be fairly obvious reasons. When it comes to discrimination, all of the other protected classes are more or less permanent – – your race, religion, sexual orientation, gender will generally stay with you for life – – but, barring sudden death, all of us will go through all classifications of age.

We therefore need to approach this problem in terms of overall career paths. If we do, it becomes apparent that, not only are younger workers also victims of age discrimination, they very well may be baring the brunt of it in today's employment market. Those younger employees are the ones turning in 60 hour weeks for less money than they merit as part of an implicit contract that will almost certainly be broken.

We have undermined the concept of deferred compensation – – often suggesting that the employee who expects the employer to make good on agreements is greedy and possibly dishonest – – while clinging to models that implicitly and sometimes explicitly rely on the idea that hard work and loyalty now will translate into rewards in the future.

If anything, the notion of "paying your dues" is even more entrenched in today's attitudes toward work. New employees are often expected to put in what would have been considered impossible hours. Freelancers are routinely expected to deliver professional level products for little or no money. Everyone is expected to borrow money to finance their own job training. All of these things are based on an implicit investment model.

But these sacrifices have come to look less and less like an investment over the past three or so decades, particularly compared to the 50s and 60s, when getting an education and/or putting in your time almost guaranteed a comfortable and stable middle-class lifestyle. Partly as a reaction to the upheavals of the 30s and 40s, the Postwar Era saw a wide array of institutional, regulatory, and cultural guarantees that these investments would be made good in the long term.

Now, nearly all of these guarantees have broken down. In terms of individual employers, there is no longer any pressure, official or unofficial, to show loyalty towards workers. Journalists now routinely portray calls for job security as protections for the "lazy" and treat as unreasonable and selfish the notion that employees have a right to collect agreed-upon pensions. In terms of overall industries, age discrimination violates the implicit contract of "paying dues." Rather than your hard work and sacrifices translating to a better job in the future, they translate to no job at all.

The 50-year-old engineer who can't get a position in the tech sector is a victim of age discrimination. So is the 29-year-old with huge college loans to repay who is about to discover he or she will be much less employable in six years. The only difference is, one of them doesn't know it yet.

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