We need a social justice movement for older workers

We need a social justice movement for older workers
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This Friday, as it does every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release the unemployment rate for September 2019. Likely, it will remain close to its current 3.7 percent, and a mix of analysts, talking heads, and politicians, will discuss the still tight labor market and look for clues about what that number means for the economy as it approaches the last quarter of the year. 

Overlooked by many of the analysts, talking heads, and politicians, however, are other data in the monthly BLS report that should be raising questions. Among these: Why should it take older workers longer to find jobs than younger ones, and why should their odds of being out of work six months or more — often the kiss of death for a job seeker — be so much higher? 

In 2017, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), celebrated its 50th anniversary of protecting workers age 40 and older. Age discrimination may be unlawful, but it still seems to be widespread and especially difficult to prove when it comes to the hiring of older job seekers.

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Today's low unemployment rate masks serious challenges facing our nation’s labor markets: growing inequality, stagnant wages, precarious jobs with few benefits, and high long-term unemployment rates — especially for older workers. 

We also face rapid technology changes that will result in new opportunities, but also displacement for many workers. Yet our public policies like unemployment insurance have changed little since the 1930s, and our workforce adjustment programs are fragmented, reactive, and inadequate, especially for mid-career and older workers. 

Americans from the Baby Boom Generation have been called “the least prepared in decades” for retirement, often lacking pensions or adequate savings to add to their Social Security benefits; many who lost jobs during the Great Recession are still struggling to recoup those losses. Without a national healthcare system, older job seekers too young for Medicare are also looking for employment that provides health insurance. 

Many older Americans say in surveys they want or need to work well past traditional retirement ages. But will they have that opportunity? In audit studies based on sending resumes to employers, researchers have documented both age discrimination and discrimination against those who have been out of work over six months, a category where older workers are overrepresented.

In 2015, after noticing the very high rate of long-term unemployment for older job seekers, including many who are highly educated, and knowing that the public workforce system is often not resourced to help older workers, the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, launched the privately-funded New Start Career Network  (NSCN), a program to help job seekers age 45 and older who have been out of work, or underemployed, for six months or more. To date, close to 5,000 New Jerseyans have received free services, including online resources and job fairs geared to older workers; over 800 have benefited from working with one of our more than 325 volunteer career coaches.

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Many older job seekers struggle to find “the holy grail” of a full-time jobs with benefits, so they often settle for “non-standard work arrangements,” including part-time and temporary positions, self-employment, independent contracting, and on-demand platform work, such as driving for Uber and Lyft. Many of these precarious jobs pay low wages and seldom offer benefits. 

As a frequent presenter at forums concerning the plight of older workers, I am often asked by both policy makers and job seekers whether employers should be mandated to hire older workers. We often discuss whether older workers should “botox” their resumes or try to convince employers to hire based on skills and not “irrelevant criteria” like age. 

As a society, we have made progress on civil rights, women's rights, rights for individuals with disabilities, and LGBTQ rights. Now we need to lead a social justice movement for older workers to change cultural perceptions of aging. While striving for social change, we also need to fight for better worker transition assistance for job seekers, whether they have lost their jobs due to technology, AI and automation, climate change, or global competition. 

To be sure, the unemployment rate for older workers is currently 2.6 percent, which would indicate that almost everyone over the age of 55 who wants to work is working. But we know for many who are working after a job loss or other gap in employment, the reality is that most of them never recover financially, and many are grossly underemployed. 

Among our New Start Career Network job seekers, whose average age is 56, three-quarters of them have a 4-year college or graduate degree, and many have acquired new certifications and credentials in the years since graduating college; skills do not seem to be the primary reason for their long-term unemployment. But for many, age does. 

With the BLS estimating that by 2026, 42.1 million older workers will constitute a quarter of the workforce, it’s time for a radical rethinking of how we address and fight age discrimination in employment, reframing it as a social justice as well as economic issue.  Age discrimination in hiring and employment is wrong, and remedies to date have been inadequate. 

Maria Heidkamp is the director of program development and technical assistance at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and a 2019-2020 Encore Public Voices Fellow.