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Ron Martz: The gray ceiling awaits as birthdays mount
Age discrimination persists in a culture that values youth over experience
02042018 AGE BIAS

Last March, I trekked back to my hometown in Pennsylvania to speak at the local college and teach a couple of classes on writing.

In addition to being reminded of why I left there and moved to the South more than 50 years ago (18 inches of snow the day before I arrived), I had an interesting lunch with a couple of high school buddies at which the subject of age came up.

Ron_Martz

One of my friends is retired from the nuclear power industry, the other a retired state police officer. I am retired from the newspaper business. Two of us had just hit a certain, magical age; the other was a few months away.

As we sat talking about old friends and old times, I looked at them and asked: “Do either of you feel as old as our ages?”

We looked around the table at each other, and then laughed.

“I know I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near that old,” I said, and they agreed with knowing nods.

We may be a bit thicker around the middle, a bit thinner on top and not able to play in those marathon pickup basketball games on the East Washington Street courts as we once did.

But there was a sense among the three of us that despite our still-active minds, we are considered relics by much of society simply because of our ages.

Society better get used to us, though. The Pew Research Center estimates that 10,000 baby boomers hit age 65 each day, and that by 2030, we will constitute 18 percent of America’s total population.

Yet the contributions of the more seasoned members of our society are often shunned and overlooked, if not outright ridiculed.

While those who exhibit racism and sexism are figuratively lynched on an hourly basis in the social media town square, ageism is something of a running joke.

Age bias is a staple of TV sitcoms.

Think Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford on “Sanford and Son,” if your memory goes back that far. Or Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza on “Seinfeld” and Arthur Spooner on “The King of Queens.” Or “The Golden Girls,” all of them.

Those sorts of stereotypes about old people translate to real life.

Just try finding gainful employment if you retire early but still want to keep working and contributing something to society instead of being a burden on your kids. 

Ageism is the one “ism” that gets a wink and a nod from most of society but no serious discussion because, well, once we hit a certain age we’re not supposed to be able to keep up with the challenges of the modern world and we are just going to die soon anyway, so what good are we?

Later today, as 40-year-old Tom Brady leads the New England Patriots into Super Bowl LII, he will be considered something of a geriatric marvel and the “old man” jokes will follow him, especially if he loses.

Of course, in that particularly brutal sport, age 40 seems to be the threshold age, if not earlier. Get past 40 and you’re something of an oddity.

In the tech industry, that “over-the-hill” threshold age apparently is somewhere just north of 40. USA TODAY reported last summer that over the last five-plus years Silicon Valley companies have been the subject of nearly 100 age discrimination lawsuits.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, did his industry and his elders no favors when he flatly stated: “Young people are just smarter.”

I wonder if Zuckerberg will believe that when he hits 40, or 50, or beyond. He’ll be 34 in May, so he’s already a bit long in the tooth for the tech industry and that age 40 monster is looming ever closer when, by his reasoning, he becomes dumber than everyone younger than him.

He may have two or three good years left then it’s all downhill from there. Break out the Geritol and the walker with the tennis balls on the legs for him and book a room at the nearest assisted living facility.

At my last newspaper job, management made an extraordinary effort in 2007 to rid the company of many workers over the age of 55 by offering buyouts and telling them that if they opted to stay on, they would be thrown back into the pool of prospective hires and would have to compete for the remaining available jobs.

Longevity at the company and experience counted for nothing.

By going that route, the company stopped hemorrhaging money, but it also lost hundreds of years of institutional knowledge and experience that all those bright and bubbly new hires could never hope to replicate.

For us old-timers, there’s a “gray ceiling” in the workplace, just as there is a glass ceiling for women and a white ceiling for African-Americans.

Age discrimination is far tougher to prove than other types of discrimination, but it’s out there. Just try sending out some resumes after you hit 50 and see how many nibbles you get. The longer the resume and the more experience you have, the more deafening the silence gets.

That gray ceiling is not just in the workplace, though. When I hit a certain age the premium on the life insurance policy for which I was paying about $2,500 a year jumped to more than $52,000 annually with no appreciable changes in my health.

My actual health did not matter. What mattered were the actuarial tables, which said I was a significantly bigger risk just because I had reached my next birthday.

I dropped the life insurance policy (which is actually death insurance, but nobody dares call it that) and started putting my money into a much more lucrative mutual fund.

Last fall, I was called for jury duty in the county in which I live. To my surprise, I was told that since I was of a certain age I did not have to serve because state legislators in their infinite wisdom had passed a law that exempts those of us who last that long.

What the law does not say, but strongly implies, is that those of us who hit that magical age are too feeble — or feeble-minded — to sit for long periods and listen to bloviating lawyers or to make rational decisions about justice.

My sense is that the legislators passed that law because those of us who reach that certain age are actually more attuned to what constitutes real justice and can more easily see through stupid lawyer tricks than younger, less seasoned jurors.

For the record, I was offended that I was offered an exemption from jury duty simply because I was of a certain age. I told the judge I refused to take the exemption.

And since I was offended, let’s start a hashtag protest movement before I hit another birthday in a few days.

#StillCogentDespiteWhatSocietyThinks

#CrankierThanEverBecausePeopleKeepTellingMeI’mOldAndIAin’tBuyingIt

You can call me old, but I’m not going to answer.

Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator whose commentaries appear monthly. He lives in Northeast Georgia.

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