She's in her 60s and she's an expendable work unit

January 01, 1991|By MIKE ROYKO | MIKE ROYKO,Tribune Media Services

There's not much one can say to Vivian except good luck, keep trying, and it's a jungle out there.

Vivian, who doesn't want her full name used, is in her 60s, around retirement age.

But she's in no position to just kick off her shoes and loaf. A widow, she needs the income of a regular job. It's either work or skimp and scrape along. She'd rather work.

And she has a skill, the stamina, and loads of experience. But she also has that long-ago date of birth that jumps off the job application.

"I feel like I've been thrown into a garbage can," she said. It's a big garbage can, shared by millions of men and women with white hair who go job hunting.

Her story is familiar. She had spent 12 years with a suburban research and development company. Before that, she had been with the Defense Department.

"I was an engineering draft checker. When blueprints are done, they have to be checked and approved to see if they meet specifications. And I did cost analysis."

Then came another familiar story. The firm was sold to a bigger foreign company. The former owners took their bundles and headed for beaches and palm trees. The new managers looked for heads to chop to improve the bottom line. Vivian's graying head happened to be there. Nothing personal, of course, but an older employee is probably earning more than the new guy, so that's smart business.

Since then -- and it's been almost three years -- she's been through one interview after another, all of them ending with something like: "Thank you, very impressive, but . . ."

"I have 25 years of experience," she says, "but because of my age it doesn't mean a darn thing.

"I've forgotten more than most of the people who are being hired for the jobs I've applied for will ever know.

"One company hired a kid right out of school with absolutely no experience. He's never worked a day in his life. It was a drafting job.

"They don't tell you that you're too old. But when you have the qualifications -- more than the qualifications and experience they're looking for -- what else can it be?

"The closest any of them came to admitting it was at one place where the personnel person told me that he'd love to hire me, but he couldn't. He said: 'You'd fracture our insurance program.' I told him I'm in excellent health, but that doesn't matter.

"I know I'm not the only one trying to deal with this. But I wish the people who do the hiring would realize that because someone is older doesn't mean that we're already dead. If you've paid your dues and have the background, you shouldn't be turned down because you're older than the guy interviewing you."

Because I regularly skim the Wall Street Journal and the financial pages, talking to Vivian is a good experience. The business news always includes stories about people like Vivian.

Of course, in those stories the people don't have names. They are numbers.

In the stories about the many mergers, buyouts, hostile takeovers, there were many Vivians. They were the people lopped when the smart boys grabbed off another company, then had to dismantle it to pay the juice on their junk bond loans. So in came the new owners and managers looking for disposable work units. That's what Vivian was, although she probably didn't realize it: a work unit. A blip on the personnel computer. One day she is there, then someone taps the delete button on the keyboard, and she is gone.

She happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place was a company that was an attractive acquisition. The wrong time was the decade of business cannibalism.

There were no golden parachutes for the many Vivians, no outrageous severance bonus, no stock option, no take-it-and-run deal. Why, if she had been a big-time inside info swindler, the government might have let her cop a plea and keep a few million for her old age.

But she was just an expendable work unit. And now, like many others, she can't even become a work unit again. Her date of birth would set off an alarming beep in a company's insurance computer.

"All I can do is keep trying," Vivian said, "but it's getting discouraging."

After we talked, it occurred to me that I could have told her to cheer up, it could be worse. After all, Donald Trump is in trouble, too, and his bankers told him he had to sell his yacht and live on $400,000 a month.

Those are problems she doesn't have, thank goodness.

Tribune Media Services

Mike Royko's column appears Monday and Friday in The Evening Sun.

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