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Our Take: Blaming the Victims

Do you feel guilty for performing a role that might otherwise go to someone younger than you?

If you're reading eFinancialCareers, you'll almost certainly say "no." But your answer won't sit well with some opinion leaders.

In her final column in Newsweek in May, famed essayist Anna Quindlen wrote that baby boomers (the generation born between 1946 and 1964) "have created a kind of bottleneck, in the work world, in politics, in power. The frustration this poses for the young and talented should be obvious." She went on to quote with approval her own son's complaint: "You guys just won't go." The 57-year old author concluded by announcing her own decision to step aside to make way for the next generation.

Quindlen's column alerted me to the latest twist in the tug-of-war over age profiling in finance. Alongside wacky stereotypes like baby boomers' alleged discomfort with new technologies, there is an emerging meme that portrays older workers as obstacles blocking the advance of deserving junior colleagues. That image echoes complaints that were heard 40 years ago against women taking significant roles in large corporations: How dare they take jobs away from men, the breadwinners who really need (and deserve) those high-level jobs! Quindlen even waxes nostalgic for the rigid career ladder of the 1950s, when "there was an orderliness to how one generation moved aside and another stepped up to primacy and prosperity."

The irony is palpable, given her strong identification with women's rights. However, her backward views on age profiling are shared by many hiring managers, according to dozens of users of eFinancialCareers and our sister site, JobsintheMoney. (For some poignant examples, see the user comments beneath this 2008 story).

Deconstructing 'Propaganda'

The idea that baby boomers, and older workers in general, ought to exit the labor force to create space for the bright stars of tomorrow is popping up with increasing frequency. The movement has all the hallmarks of an organized "propaganda blitz," according to Ellen Brandt, a media producer, journalist and educator. In a recent blog post, Brandt writes: "Such attacks are occurring regularly not only at social networking sites, but also in articles, blogs, and virtually everywhere else one turns."

Brandt ably refutes a long list of misconceptions espoused by the anti-boomer crowd. My background in economics and finance leads me to spotlight a different flaw: the "lump of labor fallacy."

This is the faulty notion that there is just a finite amount of work to go around. Its adherents believe economic activity is a zero-sum game, and any addition to the labor force - a new college grad, an immigrant, or a person in his or her 60s who stubbornly refuses to be led out to pasture - always represents a subtraction of opportunity for someone else.

Productivity Spawns Jobs

The evidence it's false was literally all around me while I read Quindlen's farewell column last weekend. I was visiting my brother-in-law, a highly educated, licensed professional in his late 50s. The service business he launched about 15 years ago is doing better than ever. Because his children haven't followed in his footsteps, he's been advised to recruit a younger partner who shares his rare skill-set, to buy into and eventually take over the lucrative practice he's built.

If this extremely productive individual simply stepped aside now, he wouldn't be creating an opening that some younger person could step into. On the contrary: He would be taking opportunities away.

This same dynamic explains why both international trade and immigration on balance create jobs for Americans. A market economy is never a zero-sum game. Only in governments, universities and other organizations characterized by chronically low productivity (perhaps this includes the news industry, where Quindlen spent her career), can people "squat" in jobs while no longer contributing to their organization's growth - thereby blocking the path of more ambitious or more capable aspirants. In profit-making entities, those occupying senior roles are held responsible for generating new ideas or revenue streams that provide a steady source of opportunities for junior colleagues. Think of Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Martin Whitman, and the late Malcom McLean.

Whether an individual creates or blocks opportunities for others by continuing to work comes down to productivity, motivation and imagination. It has nothing to do with age.

From all I've heard and read, the number of professionals in their 40s, 50s and 60s who every day find themselves shut out, pushed out or laid off in the name of making way for youth, dwarfs the number of young people held back by less-competent elders. So Quindlen might be right that one age cohort is benefiting from opportunities arbitrarily denied to another. Only, she somehow switched the two groups, and blamed the victims.

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AUTHORJon Jacobs Insider Comment
  • Ra
    Randy H
    10 August 2009

    In typical manner, Boomers fail to be self aware enough to comprehend the deep irony in their bemoaning of this self-imagined "paradox". Of course it is possible to throw various arcane economics at the "labor lump". Of course it is victim of hype and oversimplification. Of course younger generations appear to older generations as overconfident, idealistic, and dare I say, disrespectful.

    And? This is different from previous generations how? Of course the environment of business continues to evolve, but people behave essentially the same as they've always have.

    The real story here is that it is the self righteous, narcissistic, socially autistic generation we call the Baby Boomers who suddenly think it is a story worthy of surprise, concern and call-to-action when they suddenly find themselves at the end of their careers.

    How about the lot of you organize into some self important "action group" where you can invest your time and energy into writing lengthy articles about the egregiousness that afflicts you...

    Meanwhile we -- including this yet-another-pragmatic-xer -- will get on with the business of living our lives and navigating our careers same as we always hav

  • Ro
    RonCruz
    10 August 2009

    Do I feel guilty for performing a role that might otherwise go to someone younger? Absolutely not. First, even the brightest and most energetic gen x,y or z's, can and do benefit from the knowledge and experience of older colleagues which makes them more marketable in the future. Second, the right to be productive does not diminish with age, concept that in the U.S., is sanctioned by law.

    At any event, this cross-generations anger is misguided. Much of the
    problems being faced by the boomers today is rooted in the unchecked greed and corruption of the past decades in the private and even public sectors. The private, political and educational leaders have all abdicated their social roles and responsibilities, creating the mess which we see all around us. The American voters have recently reacted to the current ills but the pressure on the leaders to do the right thing must be kept. Our social responsibilities do not end upon leaving the voting boot. The challenge is to restore high ethics and the sense of social responsibility to our leaders. That, ethics aside, is also good business.

  • ta
    tac
    6 August 2009

    Edna and anyone else looking for a job, just keep plugging away. Call your contacts at least once a week and let all your friends know that you are looking for a job. I finally landed a position equal to what I had before after 6 months of searching. I put over 20,000 miles on my car interviewing including 11 onsite interviews (after multiple rounds to get to the onsites). The contract and temp job markets seemed to dry up for a while there, but there seems to be some more activity now. I found it easier to land a permanent job, because I was overqualified. Also look in anything government or defense-related. They are the ones who are hiring. Learn the lingo - like resource management (for the Army) instead of finance - and you can sell your qualifications pretty easily.

  • Bi
    Bill_Dalasio
    6 August 2009

    Mark,

    Make no mistake, I do agree with you. It's simply the fact that the boomers are expressing these claims of unfairness after creating the very monster that wreaks the havoc you describe does need to be noted here. I didn't see the baby boomers decrying the injustice of the members of the "greatest generation" or the "Happy Days generation" being pushed out in favor of them. In fact, most of what I've seen is that they created a cult of youth to enforce just that. Well, why are any of us surprised that that cult of youth only gives us inexperience as a perpetual status quo.

  • Ma
    Mark
    6 August 2009

    The irony is palpable given what's actually going on in the current marketplace: Experienced, highly paid professionals are being laid off and replaced by inexperienced, often inept, and always lesser-paid kids. As a younger-than-boomer sole proprietor I'm stuck working with these replacements at my client companies, and it's a festival of what I like to call "junior moments" - missed meetings, unintelligible emails, business calls returned at midnight, and rework due to bad decisions that the "replaced" people never would have made. Maybe it's good that Quindlen retired her column - when you expand your son's comment into a universal truth without doing additional research, it's a pretty good sign you've lost your journalistic fastball.

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