The Real Midlife Crisis

What does it take to fight middle-ageism? Understanding that midlifers offer unbeatable skills and experience, for starters.

Daniel Zalkus

My friend Carol, an attractive, college-educated white woman with a strong résumé, who had just updated her computer skills in her 50s, wrote to me two years after completing graduate school: “Since finishing my grad program, I have searched for related jobs and found none. I apply and usually get a note back that amounts to ‘Got your stuff; don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ I was interviewed only twice. Friends say my age is a main factor. What 38-year-old director of anything wants an assistant as old as her mother? This has been a truly depressing experience. … I had not anticipated this problem. That was naive, I see now.”

In being treated as too old, too soon, Carol has lots of company — probably even among readers of this magazine. Job seekers are cutting years and credentials off their résumés to appear younger, but personnel directors don’t call back. Long-term white-collar workers also get brutally canned — think of the George Clooney film “Up in the Air,” which features people who actually lost their job.

In one typical discrimination suit that went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employer said to his underlings, “We need young blood.” The assumption is we midlifers are not tech-savvy, or hungry enough, or as quick to learn. If we misplace our car keys, employers may expect us to declare with a grin, “Old-timer’s disease.” If employers don’t dump midlifers, they often want to pay us less — rehire us as adjuncts, for example.

While the Great Recession has hit people of all ages (and those between 16 and 19 the hardest), boomers who lose their jobs are disproportionately victimized in other ways. They are typically unemployed longer than younger people — two months longer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which also found that half of those between 45 and 54 have been job-seeking more than six months. Many over age 55 have been looking for two years. The numbers suing for age discrimination rise annually. Women sue 10 years younger than men, in their mid-40s. Plaintiffs rarely win. If a midlifer finds a job, it is more often with a lower rank, salary and benefits than he or she previously enjoyed. And women 55 to 74, even with a bachelor’s degree, have suffered high rates of permanent unemployment or downward mobility even during the “recovery.”

Many stop looking altogether. “Under­utilization” (a term that also includes underemployed and discouraged people wanting work) is a more significant measure than unemployment alone. The rate of underutilization of people 55 to 59 — still young by my reckoning — has more than doubled since 2000, to 13.5 percent, according to labor economist Andrew Sum at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies. Even among people with household incomes of $75,000 to $100,000 who are 55 to 74, 9 percent count as underutilized; among those who have under $20,000 in household income, it’s off the charts — 39 percent, Sum says. Boomers have been flattered (and abused) for their supposed might as a monolithic group, but they endure the highest wage inequality of any recent midlife generation.

It’s crazy to assume that boomers who are unemployed aren’t trying. The jobs are gone. Eight people are looking for full-time work for one full-time opening, according to Sum. If you were Einstein, but 50, you couldn’t get an interview.

The best-educated cohorts in American history have, in fact, been unlucky in their timing. As they matured, they increasingly slammed into offshoring, weakened unions, loss of jobs (first in manufacturing), layoffs, “early retirement” and pension defaults instituted by globalizing and privatizing capitalism. Eliminating midlife workers has become a tacit business practice and a disastrous socioeconomic trend extending over decades. This trend, worsening just as there are more of us at the top of our game and needing to earn, should appall everyone. I call it middle-ageism.

As for the personal consequences of being unemployed, the protagonist of Donald Westlake’s thriller novel “The Ax” tells us, “Miss a payday, and you’ll feel that flutter of panic. Miss every payday, and see how that feels.” Of the 46 million without health insurance, almost one-fifth are boomers. Many postpone tests and medical care they need. Between the ages of 55 and 64, as they wait to crawl across the line to Medicare, 10.7 percent of those uninsured die — more than any other uninsured age group. Suicide rates also rise in tandem with unemployment recessions.

The future of the life course for every age cohort is under assault from the drive to weaken labor, benefits, social welfare and job protections. Even those who profit from the “race to the bottom” in wages and benefits should regret this waste of the nation’s human resources, the emotional and medical costs to individuals, and the revenues lost from an inability to pay taxes.

But the gravest effect is to destroy the underlying principle of seniority: that people deserve more respect and rising wages — not automatic deflations — as they grow older. People are being cut out of the employment picture when they’re in their prime in terms of skills and experience. Without seniority as a set of practices and values taken for granted by society, aging beyond youth becomes a hopeless decline. “Progress” over the life course — like “encore careers” — becomes an empty phrase. Middle-ageism, along with ageism, is changing what it means to be human. This should be the biggest story of our time, but this tragic side of the graying of America is invisible.

The Occupy America movement, as I call it, encourages us to fight back to regain the American dream. Here and now, we need to start a national conversation about the vast project of restoring seniority. A nonpartisan majority of Americans would approve of government actions to provide more economic security for workers and challenge unfair treatment, according to a recent survey by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

There are steps we can take to restore fair play in the job sector. Urge the media to highlight the real facts about midlife.

Raise the minimum wage to help midlife and older workers — those who wind up as Walmart greeters — as well as younger ones. Fully fund the EEOC so it can do its job protecting us from midlife discrimination. Reject privatizations such as charter schools in order to grow public-sector unions, often the best option for women and African-American men. Facilitate unionizing through the Employee Free Choice Act and insist that employers sign bargaining contracts.

Better yet: Do what it takes to produce jobs specifically for midlife people by funding infrastructure positions on the state level in education, job training and scientific research. Issue an executive order that government contracts may go to companies only if they retain and promote midlife workers. These would be reinvestments in America worth voting for.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, is the author of “Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America” and the prize-winning “Declining to Decline.”