Our Take: Blaming the Victims

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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.