Those over 55 find discriminating eye OLDER WORKERS

October 29, 1990|By Meredith Schlow | Meredith Schlow,Evening Sun Staff

In 1985, Dick Morrissey lost his job the day after he settled on his new house in Riva. Five years and "hundreds of interviews" later, the 59-year-old former public relations director is still unemployed.

"It has been a very, very unhappy, high-pressure time for me," says Morrissey, whose financial problems have forced him and his wife to sell one of their cars and put their house on the market. In spite of that, Morrissey says, the lack of money is secondary to his loss of self esteem.

"The feeling that you've worked so hard to get the top and no one wants you . . .it's a terrible thing," he says.

Though almost anyone who has searched for a job unsuccessfully can relate to Morrissey's frustration, his feelings of loss and helplessness are intensified by the fact that he is searching for a job during a time in his life when many look forward to retiring.

In 1989, only 12 percent of people 65 and older worked, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. But approximately 29 percent of all people age 55 and over are working, and among those 55 to 64, more than half work.

But finding a job can be difficult.

In addition to the problems and insecurities almost all job-seekers experience, older people trying to enter or re-enter the work force may face age discrimination. Visions of higher health insurance premiums or an inability to endure a vigorous schedule plague the minds of potential employers.

"The research that I've seen suggests that people make personnel decisions based solely on a person's age," says Philip Rones, senior economist with the Labor Department bureau.

"There is some fundamental bias against older workers."

But Rosalie S. Abrams, director of the Maryland Office on Aging, says that the discrimination is, in many cases, unwarranted.

"The perception is that as a person ages, they become less efficient," she says. "I don't think it happens; I don't think these skills diminish. In some industries, obviously, where there is a level of mechanical responsibility or technical responsibility like an airline pilot, when the reaction time may be a little slow -- they're not as interested in hiring an older worker because of the risks. But where that level of skill is not required, an older person can do a job as satisfactorily as anybody. Maybe better because of the skill and expertise that person has acquired."

Unfortunately, that level of experience can backfire.

"I've had some great interviews where I awed them, and I got the feeling that this age discrimination is a very elusive thing -- they don't do it consciously," says Morrissey.

"But they think, 'This guy is older and our staff is young,' or 'This guy is 10 times better than I am, and I'd be his boss.' Of course, there's the new younger work force, the increasing role of women in the work force and all of that has upset the

supply/demand process. But the age discrimination is very, very real."

Older people find themselves unwillingly unemployed for a variety of reasons. However, Dianne Turpin, director of the Senior Employment Referral Service for the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging, says it's important to remember that as no job is immune to layoffs, no person can be immune to unemployment.

"Everybody should have a Plan B," Turpin says. "I personally have spent a lot of time thinking about how I'm going to deal with it when it's mine to deal with. I think one of the scariest parts is that you never expect it to happen."

Rones agrees, saying that while the highest displacement still exists in manufacturing jobs, his data shows an increase in white-collar displacement as well, due to "industrial restructuring, mergers and acquisitions."

Turpin puts unemployed older workers into six different categories:

* Mid-life career changers

* Displaced workers under 62, who lost their jobs through corporate takeover or mid-management buy-outs

* Retirees not yet eligible for Social Security

* Retirees over 70, looking to re-enter the job market for financial or other reasons

* Retirees looking for part-time jobs

* Women, in all of these categories, who are widowed and forced to enter the work force, often for the first time

Although each category must deal with problems of its own, Turpin says the loss of income, followed closely by loss of self-esteem, is a common theme.

"People have a strong need to feel involved and to be doing something useful," she says. "Different people come to this in different ways. They retire and think, 'Just watch me, I'm going to have the time of my life.' But within a couple of months, they realize they are bored."

Turpin says the younger tier of older workers -- those under 62 who are working toward a pension -- have the most difficult time finding employment. Women also have their own share of problems.

"Women are not equipped with the survival skills that men have," she says. "The easiest part of my job is working with people who want part-time, flexible work."

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