Don’t Let a Possible Downturn Encourage Age Discrimination

Even as the lion’s share of the country’s attention is focused (appropriately) on the global pandemic that is taking hundreds of thousands of lives, a quieter, decades-long epidemic of a different sort is poised to worsen. History tells us that age discrimination, long a reality faced by U.S. workers, only gets worse during times of economic hardship. Repeatedly, older workers have been “first fired, last re-hired” in a downturn. So today, as the U.S. economy shuts down and millions of workers are laid off, older workers face a very real danger of disproportionately suffering the consequences.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Many employers will say that letting older workers go first—and then, when the time comes, replacing them with younger ones—comes down to simple economics. As workers age, they command higher salaries, and health insurance costs rise. Employers can thus save more by terminating older workers than younger ones.

This is true on the face of it. But there are other, less obvious costs involved in replacing older workers with younger ones. And I would argue that these costs are much greater.

Today’s knowledge-driven economy is built on employees who develop, over time, unique skills and a level of understanding, experience and expertise that is expensive, or even impossible, to re-create. As a result, older workers often contribute levels of value that go much deeper than short-term calculations based on salary or overhead—even in the best of times. Now, as we look forward to the daunting process of resurrecting shuttered businesses, the collective experience and wisdom of these experienced workers will be magnified in value still more.

Throwing these workers away in the name of immediate savings may turn out to be an expensive mistake, indeed. And cutting employees who may not be financially prepared to retire is likely to have a damaging impact on the larger community, as well. Our recovering economy can hardly afford to sabotage the buying power of such a critical cohort of consumers.

The advocacy organization, Respectful Exits (whose CEO I interviewed for my blog last year) is a collaboration of aging workers and age-inclusive employers. The group has developed a social media process to collect, monitor, and document the experiences of millions of employers and employees as they make—or experience the effects of—decisions that discriminate against aging workers. The idea is to provide actionable feedback for employers, highlight best practices, and, ideally, prevent the worst aspects of past recessions from recurring.

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In fact, the current downturn presents business with a unique opportunity: let’s do things differently this time. For those companies still facing layoffs, consider what expertise you may lose as you put your older workers first in line for the cut. And as the country begins to open up again, and the economy comes slowly back to life, remember the huge amount of value workers of a certain age can bring.

Discrimination against older workers doesn’t just play out in hard times like these. Businesses have long used age as a job qualification in hiring and had formal or informal retirement age policies—even as workers’ average lifespan has steadily increased. Not only that, but they’ve replaced defined benefit plans with 401(k)s, yet provided little or no financial planning support for employees to ensure they will have the savings they need when they do choose to retire.

Once again, the current downturn provides businesses with an opportunity to take a fresh look at the way they treat their aging workers as they begin the slow climb back to “normal.” All employers can make the decision not only to abandon age as a job qualification but to end arbitrary retirement age policies. They can further help strengthen employees’ financial futures—and prevent disastrous choices—by instituting annual, no-cost financial wellness counseling. Now, not next year, is the time to make this vital commitment to an affordable benefit as shaken employees navigate the dangerous shoals of 401(k)withdrawals, risky borrowing and mortgage and rent payments.

The U.S. is facing a crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. In years to come, 2020 will be a cultural touchstone for all who lived through it, and a distinct marker on the historical timeline of every industry and business. The marker doesn’t need to be all negative, however. As we battle the pandemic together, let’s also seize this opportunity to take the first steps toward a cure for the epidemic of age discrimination.

Robin Hardman, owner of Robin Hardman Communications, helps companies of all sizes win recognition by helping them put together the best possible “best place to work” and other corporate awards submissions — from Working Mother and Fortune to the Stevies and IABC. When she's not doing that, Robin is helping companies communicate to their employees with compelling and easy-to-read benefits, HR, and general-topic employee communications. Contact her at robin@robinhardman.com.

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