Copyright © 1995 by Ethan A. Winning
That vague, crepuscular time, the time of regrets that resemble hopes, of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth has passed, but old age has not yet arrived. [Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862)]
Ivan didn't know the half of it. Had the Russia of 1862 been industrialized or even slightly capitalistic, he might have been looking for a job during one that country's recessions. Then he would have run up against the many managers in and out of Personnel who interview those really ancient applicants, i.e., over forty.
Don't go away. First of all, I'm not done. Second, this is not a heavy piece...although I do warn you that it might get preachy. Third, this article has to do with perception of age rather than railing against injustices. And fourth, if you're real good and stick with it, I'll even define crepuscular for you.
The U.S. Government has vainly attempted to protect the older worker from age discrimination. It has deemed that "older" is 40 and over. This is the same government which, when adopting Social Security, somewhat subjectively set the retirement age at 65 back in 1933. It was only partially arbitrary because Social Security was supposed to carry the worker through retirement to a death that should have come prior to age 63, the average life span before we knew about hot dogs, chicken with skin, cream, oh hell, food in general.
What I am wondering is whether or not the setting of these ages, 65 and 40, colors the perceptions of those who are younger than either. Congress has deemed 40 as the demarcation between a younger and an older worker. If Congress says so, then perhaps interviewers and HR professionals under 40 look upon that as really being old or being really old, take your pick. With all the safeguards for protecting disclosure of age, how do they determine that the applicant is over forty? Perhaps when an applicant with a wattle, slight wrinkling, midriff bulge, balding, graying (or both), or the telltale signs of gravity, an unconscious judgment call is made that this guy's old.
One of the networks (I can't remember which and it isn't because of age but rather the fact that there's 20/20, 60 Minutes, Today, Tomorrow, Tonight, Yesterday, Eye to Eye, Cheek to Cheek, and god knows how many other news programs) sent out several people on interviews, one older, one younger, one with experience, one without. Invariably the younger applicant got the job, even without experience. When the network interviewed the interviewers (did you ever wonder why the dupes consent to appear?) they denied using age as a criterion, but rather said that the older applicant did not dress appropriately or spoke more slowly or was simply overqualified. In one instance, the two women applicants were dressed in similar attire from the same store. In another, the two interviewees were (was?) the same man, made up to look older and younger than his actual 37 years.
In a conversation I had with an experienced, honest and intensely biased HR professional, I was told (off the record) that the older employee would be sick more often although that is offset to some degree by the fact that at least a woman wouldn't be having any more children. (So help me Hannah!) No, this wasn't in 1968, it was last December! Unfortunately, one cannot be drummed out of SHRM, but those were my thoughts at the time. (It should be noted that I, too, when younger had some of the same attitudes. However, they were at least the prevailing attitudes of the day.)
Study after study has established that the older worker is, in fact, more reliable than the younger employee, tending to have fewer rather than more sick days. The older worker tends to stay with a company longer. They tend to be more satisfied than the younger employees. And, they tend to work harder. Having taken that to heart, Days Inn tries to hire older employees, and it has worked well for them. (In my own company the average age is 56. Neither employee has taken a sick day in more than five years...but that is another story. The average age, by the way, at The Personnel News was 106 for cryin' out loud and you know how good they were.)
So, why does it take an average of an extra six months for workers over 40 to get a job? Overqualified is an excuse, a discriminatory one at that, not a reason. There are approximately two million unemployed workers over the age of 40 now looking for employment. They probably represent 40 million years of experience, and I don't buy the excuse that they want or will want more money. For the past five years, older workers have learned or been forced to expect and have accepted the fact that they will probably not earn more than two- thirds of what their experience, judgment and knowledge previously warranted.
Something else is going on here, another set of expectations, attitudes, and/or perceptions that should not exist in our professional community. OR, if it is none of those, perhaps those are the perceptions of senior management and we are too scared for our own job security to go against the demands of that management. This apprehension would certainly not be new to the HR community.
In a recent Newsweek poll, those surveyed were asked, Do you think the United States is in a moral and spiritual decline? Seventy-six percent responded yes!
Bill Bennett's book, Book of Virtues, has been on the bestseller list for more than ten weeks as of this writing. In the business community, the questions become, "Has there been a decline in morals? Have we just stopped teaching morality? Has there ever been ethics in business?"
Forget about society at large. We used to have standards in personnel. Personnel used to be a bastion of ethics in companies. It was Personnel which kept the company on the straight and narrow path. Have the guidon bearers of such morality all retired, leaving HR in the hands of those that AARP and the Gray Panthers are railing against?
No, I don't think so. I do think, however, that there is some confusion between doing the right thing and thinking the right thing. We all have our biases and, in HR, we (sometimes consciously) try to curb them. But the balance between our instincts and what we know to be right is, at least during the hiring process, often skewed by some subconscious elements, and attitudes take over.
So, the next time an older applicant shows up at your doorstep, think positively. Knowledge, experience, and desire are sitting in front of you. Do not look upon the situation as one in which you're about to hire your mother or father (in psychological studies, often found to be the situational perception.) So long as the applicant isn't drooling on your EEO-1 report and didn't have to be carried in on a gurney, give that individual a chance and stick to job related questions in the interview.
Oh yeah, crepuscular means twilight.