FEBRUARY 20, 2019
WHEN I WAS a high-school teenager doing homework at the kitchen table, my mother told me an exciting story that has stuck with me all my life. Preparing lesson plans for her first-grade class, she paused to describe her pay package: “There’s the base pay, and then the annual cost-of-living raise, and then the additional for the master’s.” She had been teaching for six years in New York City’s unionized school system, and each year her income would rise. She was beaming, telling her daughter a story about the sweet benefits of aging.
My mother’s annual raises enabled her to complement my college scholarship so that I could graduate without debt. That story about her age-wage curve — a modest but steadily upward line — proved critical for me intellectually as well as personally: it taught me the powerful idea of making progress over the life course. I observed my mother’s career, how she gained respect and new responsibilities. Even adults who didn’t get regular pay raises could still expect a rise in status as they grew older, rather than social depreciation and age-related decline. This was a model of normal human development that I expected to endure forever.
Many young people, even in the white working class from which my post-immigrant family was emerging, anticipated that we would enjoy a similar life. Black women and men entering civil service hoped for the same. Aging into adulthood held sunny promises. Aging-with-seniority would transform us eventually into “elders and betters.” That was an essential part of the American Dream.
But that was then, before 60 years of economic history revised these assumptions. Recently, I met with a surgeon, hoping to learn more about medical ageism — the under-treatment by clinicians of people they think are “too old” for surgery or chemo or radiation. But I never got the chance. As soon as I mentioned my book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People (2017), the physician said that he was a victim of ageism. Dr. Cushing, as I will call him, had been the head of his department, the supervisor of others, before his company took away that position, along with its salary and prestige. Only 60 in the Age of Longevity, he could have served many more years in that august role, as well as remaining an admired clinician. But, as he commented with surprising dispassion, he “cost too much.”
“You could sue,” I said, shocked. He could, indeed; there’s a law he’s on the right side of, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, passed in 1967 to protect people over 40. Well, he won’t sue. Many don’t because they fear retaliation. And, although the number of claims based on ageism has been rising since 1997, few win at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, intended to be the compliance arm of the ADEA but cannily understaffed.
This doctor’s demotion exposes the widespread historical losses since my mother’s time. To be sure, the American Dream she enjoyed was hardly universal: it excluded most women and people of color. But for decades it remained a model for employers, and it still graces some lives. Now, the good doctor’s curtailed career suggests that no level of privilege based on whiteness or maleness, no educational accomplishments, no height of expertise or noble reputation is exempt from the demotions of age discrimination. Like millions of others, Dr. Cushing is an outcome of the capitalist race to the bottom, a competition to lower wages in every field. Today, accumulating birthdays, after a certain point, generates not a pleasant sense of progress but a festering anxiety.
The economy may look good to the Federal Reserve and the Republican Party. But economists who know the true unemployment rate for people over 55 — 7.3 percent — need to know that ageism has been working to diminish the prospects of every generation. Since 1992, the Urban Institute and ProPublica recently reported, 56 percent of workers over the age of 50 in long-term, full-time positions have lost their jobs involuntarily. What happened to the idea of “making progress over the life course”? If your family has suffered from downward mobility over one or two generations, you may well agree that the number-one threat to the American Dream is the collapse of the middle years. However otherwise divided — by class, race, gender — all who survive youth will arrive at the long midlife, and will then carry any losses incurred there into a harsher old age and pass those losses on to their children.
Nowadays, aging ever so little can be a trigger for ageism, which may strike painfully early. For most celebrities, especially women, 35 is old in a bad way. Accepting a Woman of the Year award at a Billboard Women in Music event, Madonna sardonically commented that “[t]o age is a sin.” Midlife women in business find their careers standing still or dwindling. In the 2018 film Can You Ever Forgive Me? the protagonist, a 52-year-old woman, finds her career desperately foreclosed. According to actress Melissa McCarthy, “she’s a hell of a writer … and she’s told she’s obsolete. A woman of a certain age being told they’re no longer relevant or needed, that unfortunately is something that’s very current.” Colleagues get the cold shoulder from younger people. The ageism prevalent in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood, at IBM and Google, runs like a poison through the working world. The AARP found that ageism in the workforce is something that 64 percent of Americans have felt or observed.
Middle ageism is a more accurate term because the victims are not old — just “too old.” That professionals in their 40s and 50s expect to lose their jobs any minute — in the highly touted Age of Longevity, when 80 and even 90 could be considered a fine time of life — is a bitter irony. Middle ageism covers the whole range of subterfuges that businesses use to flout the law: for example, making the job unpleasant, as happens to midlife professors protected by tenure but needled toward retirement by slurs about “deadwood” or exclusions from plum course assignments. Then there’s the phenomenon of being fired and then rehired at lower pay, with a different job title. People whose degree dates indicate middle age wind up with fewer or no interviews. Or they confront ads declaring, “No unemployed need apply,” even though midlife workers who get laid off will be unemployed far longer than younger people. For many, there are no enticing white-collar “encore careers.” You can’t get a foot in the door because, though you’re not old, you’re “too old.”
The foolish and cruel language of middle ageism is used to justify such exclusions. Midlife people don’t “fit the culture” — they don’t use the slang of “the young team,” watch the same shows, or look as flexible as the childless 24/7 worker. Employers who claim to be seeking “fresh blood” are talking illegally, according to an EEOC brief, but the eugenic tinge stains our common speech. Stereotyping, victim-blaming, age-shaming, and creating an intergenerational rivalry between “boomers” and “millennials” — all these tactics hide the ongoing failure of our once-vibrant economy to create enough decent jobs for new entrants and older unemployed alike. Just as women used to be told to stay out of the workforce to leave jobs for men, now men and women of a certain age are told that they should get out, to leave jobs for up-to-date, “fresh,” needy younger people.
Unlike racism or sexism, which are typically first experienced at early ages, middle ageism strikes unexpectedly later in life, sometimes with shocking strength. People at risk of being unwanted conceal intense feelings — confusion, self-doubt, envy of the young, envy of those who retain job security or pensions, justified anguish about their future. Men’s wages peak on average at age 48; women’s at 39. What do the unemployed, the under-employed, and “the new unemployables” (as researchers at Boston College describe them) survive on if they are younger than 62, as they crawl toward retirement without adequate income or health care? Upon retirement, they will find Social Security pitifully small — the average payout in 2017 was $1,404 a month, $1,244 for women. Expanding Social Security and establishing Medicare for All would save hope, dignity, health, even lives.
Illegal, mean-spirited, stupid, and widespread, ageism is also a psychological stressor, an assault on health. This makes it costly — according to Yale’s Becca Levy, it costs the United States $63 billion a year in extra health-care costs alone. Ageism can also be lethal. When the parental pocketbook shrinks, family life can collapse in a cascade of losses. Children may drop out of school, take drugs, find themselves shut out of college; they will certainly earn less. Long-unemployed people suffer from social isolation, poverty, and depression. Data from the Centers for Disease Control show that, since 2000, suicides have been rising among men in their 50s. Recent work by Anne Case and Angus Deaton describes a pattern of cumulative disadvantage for white people in their middle years without a college degree: increasingly, they succumb to opioid deaths, out of sheer despair. A 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that 51 percent of the population felt that the American way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s.
What happened to the idea of “making progress over the life course”? The immediate postwar decades had been marked by a compact between management and labor that encouraged rising wages, health benefits, pensions, and job stability; high levels of job creation and unionization kept even nonunion wages high. High marginal tax rates on the rich leveled the playing field. Some people are aggressively nostalgic for “a simpler time,” symbolized by the 1950s, when there were enough secure jobs even for men with low education levels. But progressives, however much they may have liked the equalizing economy, certainly don’t miss Jim Crow, Mad Men, female subordination, media ignorance of poverty and prejudice, the vulnerable era before Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, ACT UP, the disability movement.
But these two interpretations of postwar history are not irreconcilable. Bernie Sanders proved, by talking about globalization, neoliberalism, the neglect of the working class, and the decline of democracy, that a large portion of the electorate could be moved by an unsparing critique of systemic capitalist inequities. The promise of life-course progress started to erode in the 1980s, as good jobs vanished, farms were foreclosed, inequality grew, unionism weakened, wages stagnated, and debt accumulated. President Reagan cut marginal income tax rates and killed the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike, while midlife workers in factories lost jobs to foreign outsourcing. Harsh foreclosures decimated family farms. Midlife miners were shoved off the mountains as coal burning became unsustainable. Then bosses “downsized” white-collar workers.
After another recession in the 1990s, the alarming new paradigm of the gig economy emerged: no job security, no employer-paid health care, no safety protections, no opportunity to rise in the enterprise. Even in academia, where the seniority system had assured to some the benefits of age hierarchy, tenure is being dismantled by adjunctification: short-term, discardable instructors who move from job to job like migrant laborers are now over 50 percent of teaching staff. Foreclosures after the Great Recession added another generation of losses that could have been prevented.
In 2016, the incomes of 95 percent of US households were lower than they had been in 2007, before the global recession, according to the London Review of Books. Retired parents tell me that their adult children are not faring as well financially as they themselves did at that age, and big data support this sense of generational decline. Upward mobility over the life course — and every desirable thing that depends upon it — has become a fable for children.
Progressives and conservatives, however disparate in ideology, should be able to agree that a primary ethical imperative of any cultural system is to value people as they age throughout their life course. We admire systems that provide this, such as the Scandinavian countries today or, formerly, Japan. Otherwise, as the inventor of the term ageism, Dr. Robert Butler, wondered (in the title of his 1975 book): Why Survive? How can people value growing older when our work, income, family future, and life chances are put at risk by an innocent biological process that no one can stop? How does our society regain respect for experience and age? What can we do to give aging-past-youth a more favorable meaning for the generations to come? These are crucial questions for the United States, where it would now be rational for young people to fear aging because of the demotions they can anticipate suffering.
Young people must be able to look up to their elders, in order to look forward to their own ascent up the ladder of years. Like me at the kitchen table with my mother, youngsters used to learn subconsciously what aging over the life course means. By sharing workspaces, younger workers absorb what their elders have learned about handling life’s challenges. If younger workers are tempted by phony pundits to chisel away at Social Security or badmouth the “boomers,” let them give deep thought to what their lives would be like when ruled by contingency, without seniority or state protections. What if their first “starting” salary were to be the highest amount they ever earned, or if they too found themselves permanently unemployable at 45? Job discrimination after 40 is unjust; it is tied to burning issues of family well-being, public health, and human rights. The meaningfulness that job security and age hierarchy provide is crucial to society at large.
Holding middle ageism — along with its consequent downward mobility — at bay is a matter of enlightened self-interest. Reversing the trends is still possible. Unions and other seniority systems, although under attack, still survive; some are growing. Innovative employers value midlife experience not for abstract “diversity” but for the value-added surplus. Many families cherish older members. And anti-ageism is slowly becoming a cause — #MeTooAgainstAgeism. With an intergenerational and bipartisan coalition, the transition toward a nation of disposable, ill-paid, and insecure workers, along with the growing armies of the unemployable, may become a battle for dignity and justice, waged by an assortment of stakeholders who share values, rather than a tragedy foretold.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a Resident Scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, is the author of the prize-winning book Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People (2017). Her essays are often cited as notable in Best American Essays, most recently in 2018, 2016, and 2015.