Aging in America


It’s Saturday morning, and I’ve just gotten out of the gym. After being beaten up by my trainer, I’m feeling a little older than I should and maybe a little grumpy. I’ve come to the food court in a local mall (excuse me, fashion centre) for the fast-food version of a stir-fry buffet. It’s healthier I tell myself. I drown my sorrows in water with an ibuprofen chaser, and assure myself that the aching will stop soon.

A baby coos across the table from me. She is bald and fat with pink bows glued to the sides of her head. Her parents have brought her to have a picture taken with a grotesquely over-sized purple mammal with huge incisors and lanky feet. Fearsome as this ordeal has been, she survived. Sucking and gumming on an animal cracker, she drools down her forearm as her parents compare photographic prints handed to them by a boy dressed in a large yellow egg with a crack down the side.

Sure she had a rough morning, but I am reminded of just how good life is for her now. As she ages, expectations placed on her by herself and others will surely grow. A life of bubbles, tickles and kisses will yield way to exams, report cards and eventually graduation. She will enter the job market, but her landing is expected to be soft as the fertility rate for the US and other developed countries continues to decline. Coupled with increasing demands for skilled workers and decreasing enrollments of domestic students pursuing graduate science degrees, she stands to place well if she chooses to pursue a technical career.

The rub comes for those unemployed later in life. In 2006, 13,569 new cases of age discrimination were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). This number has decreased steadily from its high of 19,921 total cases in 2002, but the public’s perception of those in their prime is still dangerously skewed toward the young.

In the past couple of years, the aging Baby Boomer population is starting to change all that through their collective buying power. Television commercials more frequently feature older Americans living active and productive lives. Dennis Hopper, the rebel from “Easy Rider,” is doing investment banking commercials and Donovan’s music accompanies earth-friendly alternatives from G.E.

The good news for us—employers are starting to see the need to retain experienced scientists. Eli Lilly joined forces with Procter & Gamble to found YourEncore.com an innovative new staffing agency providing “seasoned” professionals opportunities to tackle significant scientific challenges. The federal government is also realizing the impact of the Baby Boomer retirement brain drain by targeting retention and recruitment efforts in “Engineering and Science” as well as four other highly-skilled fields. More than 50 % of federal employees are within five years of retirement and 70 % of all senior managers will be able to retire by 2009.

The ibuprofen has started to lift my spirits, or maybe it is the outlook for the future. In either case, I plan to be back at work on Monday with my head held high. After all, I have a lot of skills and experience that the little girl across from me has yet to discover. If she is nice, I’ll take time to transfer some of the knowledge to her, but I think I’ll wait until she passes the blowing-bubbles-with-her-nose phase.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on April 23, 2007.

One Response to Aging in America

  1. In spite of the large number of ageism cases that have been recently filed in the US, I think that we should be grateful that we can file them at all: ageism is LEGAL in other countries. For example:
    * Switzerland: although the Swiss are discrete enough to never write this into the texts of their advertisements, they will, indeed verbally confirm age limits of 35-40 to academic jobs at Swiss universities (e.g. the University of Zürich and the EPFL in Lausanne… name ‘n shame)
    *The People’s Republic of China: heck, they even specify a maximum age in the advertisements that they place in C & E N.

    Far more troubling than the 13,569 cases that have been filed in the US are the cases that not been caught, for example in hiring decisions where no statistics are distributed regarding the employment decisions of HR managers and selection committees. Also: we can not legislate ageism in someone’s head.

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