WESTCHESTER, N.Y. — After 20-plus years as a local probation officer, Keoni May, who is now 68, was surprised by a shift in his employer’s attitude toward him.
Throughout his career, he was awarded commendations, rewards and promotions. But now, his superiors were second guessing everything he did.
“I had always been good at writing investigation reports. Now they were starting to question what I was putting in the report, when prior to that, no judge, no district attorney, no law enforcement agency ever questioned anything I wrote,” said May, a decorated Army veteran who served in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. “I was having to do eight drafts, instead of one. In the paperwork and in evaluations, I was being portrayed as a screwup of the worst order.”
Then one day, all subtlety went out the window.
“You know that we could hire three younger officers for what we pay you?” May, then pushing 60, recalls a deputy commissioner saying to him. “You remember that one short sentence quite well.”
The conversation still haunts him almost a decade after what he terms his premature retirement — voluntarily on his part, but under duress, he said.
Ageism is widespread and is termed "an insidious practice which has harmful effects on the health of older adults," by the World Health Organization. Political commentator Bill Maher famously called it the "last acceptable prejudice in America."
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once publicly noted: “Young people are just smarter.”
With 10,000 baby boomers reaching 65 every day — a trend that began in 2011 and is set to continue until 2029 — it is past the time to have a conversation around attitudes toward retirement. After all, since the time Social Security set the retirement eligibility age at 65 in 1936, life expectancy at birth has gone up by 20 years.
“How we shift the individual and corporate mindset around employees who want to and need to work beyond their mid-60s is going to be a huge societal issue over the next decades,” said Carol Evans, chief relationship officer of Respectful Exits, a national nonprofit which aims to mobilize the voices and talents of aging workers.
Evans, president emeritus and founder of Working Mother Media, said after years of advocating for flexibility for working mothers, she is now championing the benefit for all workers.
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Age discrimination occurs when an employer treats an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In May, Armonk-based IBM was sued for age discrimination by a 60-year-old employee from Texas. The lawsuit followed an investigative report by ProPublica and Mother Jones, which alleged that over five years, IBM had targeted its older American employees for layoffs. Since 2013, the report estimated that IBM eliminated more than 20,000 employees ages 40 and older in the U.S. The company has denied the allegations.
Among the initiatives Respectful Exits is pushing is the concept of phased retirement.
“Phased retirement gives people a much better emotional and financial way out than just falling off the cliff and going from full-out commitment, giving your heart and soul to the company, to immediately stopping their work,” said Evans. “It’s very difficult for people.”
Indeed, a 2013 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that as many as half of all households with Americans 55 and older have no retirement savings at all (such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA).
Less than half of those households have few other resources, such as a defined benefit, which typically provides a monthly payment for life to draw on in retirement. About 29 percent have neither retirement savings nor a DB plan.
“It’s not just the private sector, if you look at other parts of the system, we are facing significant solvency challenges. By 2034, we’ll only be able to pay three-quarters of all benefits,” said Charles Jeszeck, who oversees GAO work on retirement and pension issues. “If you look at state and local pension plans, some of them are facing very serious solvency problems. In a broader sense, there are significant challenges that we going to have to face up to to ensure an adequate retirement for everyone.”
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Ageism is hard to prove
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects individuals who are over the age of 40 from discrimination in employment. Half a century later, age discrimination in the workplace remains notoriously hard to prove.
Of the 18,376 cases filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2017, only 2.2 percent were found to have a “reasonable cause.”
Jane Gould, an employment attorney at local law firm Gould and Berg, said the cases are hard to win as an employee must prove to the courts that the employer would not have taken that action but for his or her age.
“The courts have interpreted the age discrimination statute, which has the phrase ‘because of age,’ to mean that age has to be the factor,” Gould said.
For Paul Rupert, the founder and CEO of Respectful Exits, the first order of business is to convince companies to eliminate a formal and informal retirement age. But that alone is not the answer, he said.
“Even when companies get rid of their formal retirement age, you are informed with relentless repetition, starting at age 62, that you have reached your sell-by date and it’s time for you to look elsewhere," said Rupert, who has consulted on flexible and mutually beneficial ways of working for three decades. “It varies, some do it clumsily, others do it diplomatically and cleverly.”
Along with getting rid of the “sell-by” date and introducing phased retirement, Respectful Exits says companies should provide career-long development and training to all staff, flexible scheduling for all employees and provide annual financial counseling.
“We’ve added a big chunk of life but what we didn’t do is integrate that new reality into the way we think about the desirable length of work and retirement,”’ said Rupert. “You cannot force a whole class of people to retire simply because of their age. People need choice. Many people, particularly after the recession, literally cannot afford to retire.”
Last year, the GAO produced a report that analyzed the experience of a few companies that offer phased retirement plans.
“It has been one way to cover some of the gaps between retirement savings and retirement readiness,” said Jeszeck. “We’ve heard some real success stories from the limited number of companies offering them.”
With an employee-initiated phased-retirement, companies can work to ensure that institutional knowledge is systematically passed down through mentoring programs, benefitting both the company and the economy.
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“People who work pay taxes, they buy things and help contribute to a healthier economy,” said Rupert, of Respectful Exits. “As soon as you stop working and drawing down a relatively small social security check and pension, you don’t pay taxes and stop spending at the rate you would if you were employed.”
Evans said she sees the fight against ageism as a "mass movement."
"We want pre-retirees feeling confident and strong in their own abilities. When you are faced all day long with ageism, you can start to lose faith in yourself,"said Evans. "We want to make sure we help the older aging worker to see that you don’t have to just retire and join AARP. You can stay in your career and you can ask for training and ask for phased retirement. It's how we trained working mothers to ask for flex."
Throughout his career, May, the probation officer, prided himself on being an efficient worker. Despite the fact that he wore a prosthesis after having his left leg amputated decades before, he completed the FBI's two-week course at the Defensive Tactics Instructor School in 2000.
In 2009, after being out of work for a couple months with a broken ankle, the then 58-year-old May said things seemed change dramatically at work.
He was not immediately capable of resuming field work, he said, and when his desk was moved from a cubicle into a “closet” office, he felt it was an indication — one of several over the course of a year, he said — that he was being forced out.
May said he was unprepared when a deputy commissioner came over to his desk early one morning a few weeks before he turned 60, and handed him a retirement package.
“It was a catatonic shock. It caught me completely off guard,” said May, who noted that he was not overtly told he had to retire or forced to accept the package.
He poured over the documents until noon, and finally decided to sign as he feared jeopardizing his pension.
It’s been almost a decade since his retirement but May said only now has he acknowledged that he felt forced out. At the time, he said he was hurt and humiliated and it was easier to say he was retiring because he didn’t enjoy the desk job as much as field work. He never pursued legal action against his employer.
May, who now lives in Hawaii — where he originally is from — said he would have liked to have continued to work at least until the age of 65. Adding a few years at the end of his service would have made a significant difference in his monthly pension payments.
“You have to sell a little bit of your soul to walk out because if you want to put up a fight, it can only get worse,” said May.
“They have you over a barrel. You don’t have much of a choice. People just don’t understand, you don’t have much of a choice.”