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Issue Date:  April 8, 2005

Why 'keep working' won't work

In the turmoil of anxieties created by the Bush administration attack on Social Security, the financial columnists and advisers to the baby boom generation have two words of advice: “Keep working.”

But that advice confronts two other realities. The first is age discrimination in seeking a new job, and the other is age discrimination on the job. With its March 30 ruling on employees’ rights to sue against on-the-job bias, the U.S. Supreme Court has sided with the older employed worker.

In the job-seeking field, there’s no protection. There, age discrimination can be as subtle as class-consciousness or as blatant as racism. We know of the Washington correspondent who, as the result of cutbacks, applied for a job. This author of a couple of books that had created a temporary buzz in Washington and New York was asked to take a writing test.

As if on cue, he, naturally, stormed out.

And the nurse practitioner who was asked by the interviewing doctor, “How old are you?” When she stated, “You’re not allowed to ask me that,” he said, “Oh. Well, how long do you intend to keep working?”

More than half the U.S. workforce today is over 40 and the youngest of the baby boomers is 47. They’re up against a tough market, and it isn’t just Americans they’re competing against. It’s the rest of the world.

And that’s because of what has happened to the U.S. economy, not this year or last year, but in the past 200 years.

The landmass that became the United States was an underpopulated natural storehouse of everything humanity needs and uses, with the exception of coffee, chrome and a few specialized minerals.

The speculators, railroad builders, land barons and capitalists did not harvest this abundance. They plundered it. There was never any thought to conservation, nor to including a “nonreplacement” fee in its cost because, like copper ore in Montana or iron ore in the Mesabi Range, it could only be used once.

The rate of plundering accelerated so rapidly that commodity prices, wood or wheat, coal or corn, in the 19th century often plummeted rather than increased. With the automobile and the gasoline age, the United States had so much petroleum so readily on tap, it controlled world prices simply by opening or closing its own spigots -- much as Saudi Arabia has been doing of late to oblige the Bush administration.

OK, so where is all this economic history headed?

To today. By the end of World War II the country was still relatively self-sufficient. But its appetite grew and its local supplies ran dry. Then, it had to go into the world markets as a supplicant. Certainly it attempted to take over the markets, corral them, control them. But it was still up against everyone else.

The moment the United States became a competitive buyer, it had to become a competitive employer. Not competitive with other American employers, but competitive with all the others around the world. It still tries to dominate where it can -- NAFTA, CAFTA, Iraq oil, Saudi protectionism.

But to pay for what it can’t demand, the United States had to manufacture better, cheaper, quicker, smarter. Especially cheaper.

And younger employees are generally cheaper than older employees.

And there’s scarcely an employer anywhere who isn’t fascinated by the cost savings in that equation.

So, older Americans -- and increasingly America will be an old nation -- might want to “Keep working,” but won’t be able to. Suits allowed by the Supreme Court might help, but the “suits” who control the corporate offices will keep finding ways. That’s how they justify their stock options or simply flaunt their power.

As for the social safety nets that used to be there when the “suits” have their way? Hey, that’s disappearing, too. That’s because the “suits’ ” best friends are running Washington.

And when the Washington merry-go-round next turns, those who get off the administration hobby horse to go job hunting won’t have to worry about writing tests and face-to-face interviews. The “suits” will make room on their boards and in their executive suites, until the next time.

To name but two, that’s what Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld did. Now that’s really job security for older Americans.

National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 2005

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