Thursday, August 11, 2011

Logan's Run Economy (21 June 2010)

To follow up on the post yesterday about foolish austerity, and the noxious view that unemployment benefits shouldn't be extended because it would be rewarding a bunch of lazy slackers: some of the unemployed would love to be hired but are (a) stuck in a house in a depressed area or (b) old. Or both. Ezra Klein links to this Washington Independent piece by Annie Lowrey that details the difficulties older workers have in getting hired.
There are structural reasons that the unemployment crisis is hitting older Americans so hard. Older workers are more likely to be underwater homeowners, unable to sell their house and move away. They often have highly specific marketable skills, and seek positions more selectively. They also often have skills rendered obsolete by the recession, in outdated trades. But too often, employers illegally presume that older workers will be harder to train, more likely to leave for other positions, less productive, less technologically able or less willing to move — and do not hire them for those reasons.

I worry about this a lot. I work in an industry (magazine publishing) that is notorious for age discrimination. Also, as a PhD dropout who was "overqualified" for most of the entry-level jobs I had to apply for, I can readily remember the frustration and futility, the despair -- and this was when the economy was recovering robustly. I ended up having to spend a lot of time in temp agencies, proving my ability to alphabetize and to open up files in Microsoft Word. I felt like a useless piece of garbage, unwanted by society because I made the error of extending my education until I reached 30, and I wondered when the time would come when they would send me to the soul-renewal chamber like in Logan's Run. How much worse must it be for those laid off in a downturn because they are older and draw more benefits and better salaries and ruled inefficient relative to younger, less demanding workers.

Whenever the economy undergoes a structural shift, it seems that older workers will be disadvantaged without remedy, since they will have outdated skills and will be subject to uncorrectable discrimination. Lowrey notes that "policy experts fear that age discrimination in hiring, compounded by the recession, is a problem without a solution. Individuals can bring cases against individual companies, but discrimination is virtually impossible to prove, even if it is easy to see as an aggregate phenomenon." So even though the trend is obvious at the macro level, micro-level concerns make it difficult to change. (Sort of like the problem of inadequate demand in the economy generally.) Thus we have a Logan's Run economy, concentrating unemployment among older workers while making them scapegoats for the runaway deficit that is "stealing from our children." Perhaps the Republicans who stonewalled the jobs bill should stop pussyfooting around and tell these older workers to just go die.

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