“This isn’t how most people think they’re going to finish out their work lives,” said Richard Johnson, an Urban Institute economist and veteran scholar of the older labor force who worked on the analysis. “For the majority of older Americans, working after 50 is considerably riskier and more turbulent than we previously thought.”
• quoted by Peter Gosselin
• • •
One of the issues that arises out of our capitalist economy that has become of increasing interest to me in this season of my life is the fate of the aging worker. At ProPublica, an author I heard interviewed recently, Peter Gosselin, has a piece called, “If You’re Over 50, Chances Are the Decision to Leave a Job Won’t be Yours.”
Gosselin was interviewed in response to a case that is heading to court on Wednesday, accusing IBM of age discrimination. Last year, it was reported that the company fired more than 20,000 workers over the age of 40, which amounted to around 60% of the job losses at IBM. His article addresses a pattern that IBM exemplifies.
ProPublica and the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, or HRS, the premier source of quantitative information about aging in America. Since 1992, the study has followed a nationally representative sample of about 20,000 people from the time they turn 50 through the rest of their lives.
Through 2016, our analysis found that between the time older workers enter the study and when they leave paid employment, 56 percent are laid off at least once or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily.
Only one in 10 of these workers ever again earns as much as they did before their employment setbacks, our analysis showed. Even years afterward, the household incomes of over half of those who experience such work disruptions remain substantially below those of workers who don’t.
In the article, Gosselin quotes Gary Burtless, a labor economist, who says, “We’ve known that some workers get a nudge from their employers to exit the work force and some get a great big kick. What these results suggest is that a whole lot more are getting the great big kick.”
A numerical analysis of the study suggests that, of the 40 million American workers over age 50, 22 million will suffer a layoff, forced retirement or other involuntary job separation, with only about 2 million recovering from the loss.
When you add in those forced to leave their jobs for personal reasons such as poor health or family trouble, the share of Americans pushed out of regular work late in their careers rises to almost two-thirds. That’s a far cry from the voluntary glide path to retirement that most economists assume, and many Americans expect.
There is such a thing as age discrimination, and it’s illegal. However, in recent years, enforcement of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) has been much more relaxed, leaving many without its protections. Furthermore, most companies are no longer offering pensions, which may have given older workers incentive to retire early without undue worry. Laid-off workers in their 50s and beyond are more apt than those in their 30s or 40s to be unemployed for long periods and land poorer subsequent jobs, which can dramatically impact their quality of life in its final seasons.
“The expectation that American workers decide when they want to retire is no longer realistic for a significant number of older workers who are pushed out before they are ready to retire,” said Rutgers’ [Carl] Van Horn. This, despite the fact that, since 1986, mandatory retirement at any age has been outlawed by Congress. They subsequently added a requirement that people’s retirement decisions must be “knowing and voluntary.”
It’s not happening for many, perhaps a majority, of older workers.
Yesterday, when we talked generally about capitalism and its relationship with the teachings of Christ and the eschatological faith of the church, most of the discussion focused on how this economic system emphasizes private wealth and acquisition that have often left the poor damaged and on the margins. Peter Gosselin puts his finger on another aspect in capitalism’s development that affects people at a variety of income levels and status.
But unjust treatment is unjust treatment, and Peter Gosselin’s analysis helps us understand that few are immune from the grinding wheels turned by the bottom line.