A persistent fallacy: older workers compete with younger ones

whittemore profile

Maybe we think it’s like teeth: if the first ones don’t fall out on schedule, there’s no room for the second set. Or like the forest canopy: there’s only so much sunlight and an awful lot of leaves. Is the number of good jobs fixed? Do all ages compete for them?

Peg Whittemore thought so. A teacher her senior year of high school, in 1942, happened to turn her on to chemistry. A young man at her father’s restaurant, where she worked the cash register, told her, “‘You don’t want to major in chemistry. That’s not for women.’ I said, ‘Yes I do! That’s what I’m interested in.’” She went on to teach freshman chemistry at the University of New Hampshire, get an advanced degree from Wellesley College funded by the National Science Foundation, have three sons, and land a job with a company called Instrumentation Laboratory. A bench chemist, she designed reagents (chemistries that react with blood or serum) for laboratory and hospital instruments.

Over 22 years Whittemore rose to project manager, with about 17 people under her. “I really liked working with young people, and of course the chemistry itself was always fascinating,” she says. Then, at 67, she was summarily laid off. “If companies are having any kind of financial problems they’ll look for people who are getting to the end of their career agewise, because they can probably bring someone else in who can probably do just about the same thing for about half the salary,” she says. “Oh, it was a shock of course. And yet you know there’s a good logic for it.”

The way the order was carried out [described in the audio clip below] bothered Whittemore more than the fact of being let go. But was there in fact “a good logic” behind the company’s action? Without having given it much thought, I shared Whittemore’s presumption that older workers may well be taking jobs away from younger people. It’s tempting to assume that the generations will inevitably be pitted against each other, especially when recession looms. But as Robert Butler points out in his invaluable new book The Longevity Revolution, this zero sum thinking is not borne out by studies:

The United Nations International Labor Office in Geneva Switzerland has found that the continuing participation of older person in the paid workforce does not measurably reduce opportunities for younger workers. Age Concern of Great Britain reports similar findings. It is a mistake to assume that a sixty-four-year-old will be instantly replaceable by a twenty-year-old in jobs and industries. There is no validity to the idea of a “fixed lump of labor.” [p. 252]

Because of her age, Whittemore decided to “find something else to do” rather than look for more work as a chemist. “The minute you have free time, you start volunteering,” she points out. Within weeks she’d joined the local Earth Decade committee (an offshoot of Earth Day) and has been “up to my eyeballs in it ever since.” Now 83, she works part time coordinating the popular Senior Work Program at the Council on Aging in Sudbury, Massachusetts. She interviews and places about 50 people over age 60 in jobs that range from stuffing envelopes for the Town Clerk to running the AV equipment for town meetings. For 100 hours of work, they receive a $750 abatement on their annual real estate taxes. Whittemore earns $150 a month — “a little more income coming in,” she says cheefully. “And I’ve reached a point now where I really don’t feel I can ski a whole day.”

5 thoughts on “A persistent fallacy: older workers compete with younger ones

  1. I found your blog through the Fragile Families listserv; also, I’m getting an MA in Organizational Psychology, and one of the things I’m studying is older people in the workplace.

    One reason retirement as we know it was invented was, indeed, to make room for younger workers in a tight job market. First there was the Depression, and then the mass surge of young baby boomers into the workplace. Now things are different. Even with immigration and outsourcing, there is just not that abundant supply of eager youngsters anymore – especially eager, well-educated youngsters. In most fields, we need the older people to stick around more. The kind of jobs we have more of now – desk jobs, service jobs – can be done by (relatively healthy) older people just as much as by younger ones.

    I believe there are some fields where the competition for jobs is so fierce and the jobs themselves quite desirable, that attrition/retirement is the only way for younger people to find jobs. Anecdotally, however, it’s not so much *fields* as *areas* where this happens. For instance, it’s hard to get a job as a small-town mail carrier, because people keep those jobs until they retire or die. Areas where local/state government is the only good employer around, I surmise this happens a lot. However, as jobs go, these positions are a drop in the bucket.

    I believe that if people want to work past “retirement age,” more power to ’em. So many people find retirement is boredom, not bliss. More importantly, I don’t believe that a healthy economy can or should rely on “dead man’s shoes” (or retired ones either) in order to provide jobs for younger people.

    1. thanks, Crystal; good points. they’re reflected in the fact that the number of Americans who formally retire has dropped since 2000 — the first decline since "retirement as we know it was invented," as you put it so well. it would be interesting to track the "areas" in which attrition is key. many people presume that older workers have to abandon physically demanding jobs (as many indeed do), but your mail carrier example suggests that this is often not the case — as does the fact that Peg Whittemore skis like a pro at 83.

  2. Thank you, Ms. Applewhite for this very engaging post.

    It is crucial that we put faces, names, and voices to the many older workers who are being discriminated against in the workplace.

    Also,a big thanks for your mention and praise of The Longevity Revolution, and for stopping by our blog, as well.

    People who read this post may also be interested in downloading our issue brief, The Fallacy of the Lump of Labor:

    Our blog post about the brief can be found here:

    Best regards,
    Anti-Ageism Task Force
    International Longevity Center-USA
    60 East 86th Street
    New York, NY 10028

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *