By Stephanie Jones
A short time ago, on August 28, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, made in an effort to highlight economic injustice in America through the lens of racism.
That speech, made on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, has become part of American history. Many of us can still recite quite a few famous lines from it, even though we were not physically in Washington to hear it on that summer day in 1963.
One part I remember vividly is: “… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…”
Recently, as I sat in front of my laptop researching job prospects, with my flat screen TV on in the background; out of the corner of my eye I watched the original recording of Dr. King’s speech in its entirety. I realized how poetic and profound that speech really was, even though it was delivered 50 years ago.
I could see the faces of many in the audience as Dr. King spoke his eloquent words. He had just reminded us that “… five score years ago, a great American signed the Emancipation Proclamation in whose symbolic shadow we stand today…” Of course, he was referring to the iconic Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.
In his speech, Dr. King went on to say: “… but one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination …”
The Civil Rights activist continued “… one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition…”
Though a distant memory now, Dr. King’s passionate speech got my attention. I started to realize this is how I have been feeling lately, which is to say, “disenfranchised.” The interesting thing is that I am a not one of the people Dr. King was referring to in his famous speech from long ago. I am a Caucasian woman; a college educated Baby Boomer, who has been struggling to secure a permanent job for an inordinate amount of time since The Great Recession. I realized I had something in common with the audience of 50 years ago, which is to say there is an economic injustice many of us are experiencing these days.
And, it appears, I am not alone in my feelings that something is very wrong in our stagnant job market, especially for those over age 50.
In a recent article, entitled The Issue of Ageism Today, author Robert Butler writes that the term “ageism” was created in 1960s. Back then, it was defined as “a process of systematic stereotyping of, and discrimination against, people because they are old.” Isn’t that similar to what racism had to do with person’s skin color and sexism had to do with a person’s gender?
Older people are sometimes incorrectly categorized as “senile” or “rigid in thought.” And ageism is an ever-so-subtle process that almost forces the younger generations to view older people as truly different from themselves. Thus, they sometimes cease to identify with their elders as human beings, according to the article.
Butler’s article went on to talk about workplace discrimination that is based on a person’s age: “… unlike the rules that apply to workers who have been discriminated against due to race, sex, nationality, and religion, older workers must now prove that age was the decisive factor, making it far more difficult to prove their case …”
“The interesting reason being, while some things are permanent, such as sex or race, age is a changing factor that is like a moving target; so, to prove ageism, you have to show this was a motivating factor in an adverse employment decision and that the same decision would have been made without considering the employee’s age. Also, many stay in the workforce due to making ends meet or to save more for retirement,” the article stated. Here are a few more statistics from Butler’s article.
- Only 29 percent of non-retirees surveyed say they have, or are close to having, enough money to retire comfortably.
- Twenty-nine percent also say they will have to work for a number of years more to retire comfortably, with 36 percent unsure when they will actually be able to retire.
- Among retirees, 16 percent say that they may need to return to work.
In other words, we are saturating the workforce trying to get back in while we fight this upward battle of ageism. We need to seek out the company culture that will value our years of experience as a plus, according to Butler’s article. (For additional information on ageism, visit http://www.disabled-world.com/editorials/ageism.php.)
That’s fine for the mature worker who already has a job, but, what about the mature job candidate who is trying to find a new job? Are there any laws to protect him or her?
“It is hard to really provide facts that you didn’t get a job because of your age,” says Laurie McCann, American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Foundation Senior Litigation Attorney. But, “being aware of your rights is your best protection,” she added. (For more tips on ageism in the workplace, read Laurie’s column There’s a Lawsuit Here: Five Tips For Older Jobseekers.) or check the link http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2011/06/21/age-discrimination-at-work-how-to-fight-back/
After doing all this research on the subject of ageism, something started to occur to me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not comparing my recent strife involving my lengthy job search to those who suffered racial discrimination during the American Civil Rights Movement, or even to the extent of what was happening in the summer of 1963, but, something just seems a bit off to me when it comes to trying to find suitable work these days.
Why is it that I continue to go to interview after interview and no one seems to hire me? After I’ve had each interview, I feel so hopeful and convinced a job offer is soon to come, but, the offer never comes. I think to myself, what am I doing wrong?
Then, I realize I am not doing anything wrong; rather, I have been experiencing a form of discrimination called ageism; but, it’s ever so subtle and no one will say anything directly to your face. Instead, they seem to come up with excuses, like, “you’re overqualified,” or, they ask questions in the interview, like, “How would you feel if you had to report to someone younger than you?” Once, when I interviewed with one of the largest companies on the planet, an Interviewer actually said to me “Marketing departments are usually young…”
Add to that a recent Forbes article I read that said AARP researched the topic of ageism and found “the average length of unemployment between jobs for older workers is at an all-time high — well over a year.”
On average, it takes someone age 55, or older, three months longer to find a job than a younger person, according to the article. (To read more of this article, visit http://www.forbes.com/sites/kerryhannon/2012/06/21/fighting-agediscrimination-new-aarp-survey/.)
Now, back to the legal ramifications of ageism. Apparently age discrimination charges, filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), now account for a nearly a quarter of all complaints. In 2011, the EEOC received 23,465 age-related complaints, up from 16,548 complaints in 2006, the Forbes article stated.
Again, based on my research about ageism, I have come to the conclusion that what is going on here is truly outrageous. Yet, I seem to be powerless to do anything about it. I just have to suck it up and keep my problems to myself because they are too embarrassing to share with others.
After going through several job interviews and not coming away with a position, I truly feel that I have had at least a little a taste of what discrimination actually feels like. Somehow it’s made me feel like I am a failure, that it’s my fault that I can’t find employment, just like those who endured racism for many, many years and were not even permitted to vie for certain jobs – simply based on the color of their skin and not their qualifications or job skills.
Again, my experiences are nothing compared with the racial discrimination that many suffered during the Civil Rights era. But, now I am beginning to understand, in a small way, how grossly unfair living conditions were, back then, for certain people living in America.
Now, I really get it – to be discriminated against is pervasive, systematic, institutionalized, and there is nothing you can do to overcome it. I do not want to feel sorry for myself, nor am I making up excuses. As a matter of fact, I have taken a gamble even writing this publicly, because I could be perceived as a “trouble maker” or a “Debbie Downer,” but I felt strongly that somebody had to say something about this situation!
In Dr. King’s speech, he says “… when the Architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men, as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’ …”
Yes, this is what I want, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But, I cannot have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness unless I can provide for my family and pay my: mortgage, electric bill, gas bill, Internet bill, weekly grocery bill, property taxes, health & dental insurances, put gas in my car (and hope that it keeps running), send my kids to college, and on and on. I am not even asking for a family vacation – and forget about retirement!
So, what’s the resolution to this problem? I have heard there are companies out there that appreciate the diversity of their workforce. They often pair young college graduates, just entering the workforce, with more seasoned, mature workers, so they can operate as a team and learn from one another. I really like that idea.
I only hope that, either through GlassDoor.com or networking, I can find and actually work for such a progressive company; one that fosters the kind of culture I just described. I know, way deep down, that I am smart, worthy, and capable. I just need to find the right company culture to match my abilities and qualifications.
My answer to the ageism problem? I just have to keep re-educating myself, as I have been doing. So far, I have tried to keep up with the trends in my field, earning a Mini MBA in Digital Marketing from Rutgers University.
I have also tried to be open to new ideas, to reinvent myself. In 2011, I took classes in Electronic Health Records (EHR) at Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC). (Last year, EHR was the new initiative being touted, where the feds were supposed to hire an estimated 50,000 people.)
But, no matter what I have to do to get a job, I will continue to smile, be upbeat, and diligently pursue opportunities in my field. I can’t change my age, but, I can keep my appearance current and have a “skip” in my step whenever I go to a job interview.
And, during any future interviews, whenever I am being characterized as being “overqualified,” I understand that it will be critical for me to position myself and turn the negative into a positive to create a win/win situation; wherein I can prove to a perspective employer that I can hit the ground running and immediately bring my expertise to the table.
Finally, echoing Dr. King’s speech somewhat, I have hopes for the belief that “I will one day live in a nation where we will not be judged by the wrinkles in our skin, but by the content of our character!”