Becoming dead wood
There is a lot of hostility toward older people these days and for some good reasons. But this isn't right
no matter what and it will happen to young people too when they age out.
For nearly a half century, IBM came as close as any company to bearing the torch for the American Dream.
As the world’s dominant technology firm, payrolls at International Business Machines Corp. swelled to nearly a quarter-million US white-collar workers in the 1980s. Its profits helped underwrite a broad agenda of racial equality, equal pay for women and an unbeatable offer of great wages and something close to lifetime employment, all in return for unswerving loyalty.
But when high tech suddenly started shifting and companies went global, IBM faced the changing landscape with a distinction most of its fiercest competitors didn’t have: a large number of experienced and aging US employees.
The company reacted with a strategy that, in the words of one confidential planning document, would “correct seniority mix.” It slashed IBM’s US workforce by as much as three-quarters from its 1980s peak, replacing a substantial share with younger, less-experienced and lower-paid workers and sending many positions overseas. ProPublica estimates that in the past five years alone, IBM has eliminated more than 20,000 American employees ages 40 and over, about 60 percent of its total US job cuts during those years. (Read more about how ProPublica got the story here.)
In making these cuts, IBM has flouted or outflanked US laws and regulations intended to protect later-career workers from age discrimination, according to a ProPublica review of internal company documents, legal filings and public records, as well as information provided via interviews and questionnaires filled out by more than 1,000 former IBM employees.
Among ProPublica‘s findings, IBM:
- Denied older workers information the law says they need in order to decide whether they’ve been victims of age bias, and required them to sign away the right to go to court or join with others to seek redress.
- Targeted people for layoffs and firings with techniques that tilted against older workers, even when the company rated them high performers. In some instances, the money saved from the departures went toward hiring young replacements.
- Converted job cuts into retirements and took steps to boost resignations and firings. The moves reduced the number of employees counted as layoffs, where high numbers can trigger public disclosure requirements.
- Encouraged employees targeted for layoff to apply for other IBM positions, while quietly advising managers not to hire them and requiring many of the workers to train their replacements.
- Told some older employees being laid off that their skills were out of date, but then brought them back as contract workers, often for the same work at lower pay and fewer benefits.
I worked in an industry where except for the top executives, you rarely ever see anyone over 50. And women over 40 had better look a lot younger. So I know this phenomenon well. It's scary to lose your career at that age but it happens all the time and nobody gives a shit. For a lot of people it's devastating because they are still carrying debt and putting their kids through college.
Of course, eventually the victims just retire or die so their voices disappear. But then another generation comes along. If they're lucky.