Michael M. Ego op-ed: Looking beyond age in the workplace
The current issue of Time features the topic of longevity. It offers readers the latest information about the concepts of human aging.
In a prior issue published in 1958, it was predicted that the number of persons age 80 and older would reach 2.3 million by the early 1960s. In 2017, that number exceeds 7.7 million.
During the past month, the Trump Administration has identified nominees for key administrative posts, including the Cabinet. As one reads about each of the nominees, the chronological age of each person is included in their bios. The age range of these nominees is from the mid 40s to late 70s, that includes the president’s age of 70.
The qualifications of each nominee to serve the nation are vetted by Congressional committees and other federal officials. And, of course, there is always the external comments by media and the general public about the competency to serve. In the process of appointing his cabinet and other key posts, President Donald Trump has gathered together a group of individuals who may have been called “old geezers” in years past. However, there has been scarce commentary about the chronological age of the president’s nominees. Why is that so?
If you look further at the bios of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, the chronological age of these elected officials, particularly the persons who are in leadership positions, extend into the 80s. Also, the Constitution provides that Supreme Court justices are eligible to serve during “good behavior.” The term “good behavior” is understood to mean that the Supreme Court justices may serve for the remainder of their lives, unless they are impeached and convicted by Congress, resign or retire.
The word “gerontocracy” is defined as a society where leadership is reserved for elders. The ancient Greeks were among the first to believe in this idea of gerontocracies. However, these beliefs are not unique to ancient Greece, as many cultures continue to believe in this way of thinking. Often these political structures are such that political power within the ruling class accumulates with age, making the oldest the holders of the most power. Those holding the most power may not be in formal leadership positions, but often dominate those who are.
Age discrimination, as it pertains to employment in the United States, forbids employment discrimination against anyone at least 40 years of age. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 into law. The law also applies to standards for pensions and benefits provided by employers and require that information about the needs of older workers be provided to the general public. Yet, there are perceptions by the general public about when a person should stop working, based upon their chronological age. The benchmark has been linked to the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Back in 1994, the median age of U.S. employees was 37.7 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BSL), 40.3 years old by 2004 and to 41.9 years by 2014. By 2024, the median age of U.S. workers is expected to be 42.4 years old.
So why is it that America’s workforce isn’t getting younger as millennials reach working age? Part of the reason is that a greater share of older Americans are bucking traditional retirement and staying in the labor force longer than has historically been the case. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of Americans at least 55 years old who were active in the civilian labor force ballooned by 47.1 percent, according to the BLS. And that number is expected to grow nearly 20 percent over the next 10 years. This age group’s share of the labor force is anticipated to increase from 21.7 percent in 2014 to nearly 25 percent in 2024.”
As we analyze the current workforce data and observe the composition of the political leadership, the assessment is that the concept of “ageism” may not be present — that is, the prejudice and discrimination toward older persons in the workforce is minimized. The United States is not a gerontocracy because there is a balance of ages that govern our society. Finally, I am pleased to conclude that Americans are looking beyond age, as a variable, in determining competency to serve not only our nation in political leadership, but also that older workers are perceived as making a valuable contribution to the future well-being of our country.
Michael M. Ego is a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut Stamford. He teaches the course, “Adulthood and Aging.”