David Benfell

Control over profit: Why to doubt that companies will overcome ageism

Not Housebroken -

My last “real” job, a job I define as fulfilling the criteria in Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),[1] meaning among other things that it actually pays rent, was at Axis Personal Trainers and Spa. Today, I think Axis has only one store (its first), in Menlo Park, but at the time, it was headquartered in another store in Mountain View, had another, struggling, store in Los Gatos, and had ambitions to expand to 100 stores by the end of the year (2001).

I had been hired as a junior systems administrator in February of that year, away from a technical writing job at a company I still think was a good idea but was floundering, and no longer exists, Linuxcare. At Axis, we were building an information technology (IT) infrastructure for 500 stores. I had my doubts about this plan, as these were incredibly luxurious outlets and building ten of them would have been ambitious in itself, but it was a job, I was working with people I hoped to learn from, and so I kept my mouth shut.

It seems I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Linuxcare’s failing was that it had been funded by venture capital, which assumed control of management and rather extravagantly ran it into the ground. The founders had retaken control when I left but by then it was too late and when, it seems, the venture capitalists folded up their checkbooks in April, precipitating the dot-com crash, it turned out that Axis had been gotten the same treatment as Linuxcare, thus explaining its wildly unrealistic and extremely costly expansion plans.

Those plans were now gone and Axis would be outsourcing its IT going forward. And it would be apparent to all of us that the chosen firm was far less competent than we were.

It was during my final weeks at Axis that I received my first two clues about ageism. One was when it came to the matter of collecting the pittance that had accumulated toward retirement in the two months I’d been there. I realistically had only one choice, to take the cash, but there was a grace period during which I could reverse my decision to take the money that, as my boss observed sarcastically, I obviously could only have made in an addled state of mind.

The second was when that same boss noted I would be up against age discrimination in my job hunt. He and the guy who had not yet been installed formally as my supervisor agreed that they would find me something.

They never did and neither have any of my other friends. And seventeen years later, even having returned to school, finished a B.A. in Mass Communication, an M.A. in Speech Communication, and a Ph.D. in Human Science, I remain unable to find a “real” job as defined above.

There are numerous possible explanations for this calamitous state of affairs. But I’ve gotten maybe five interviews in all that time—let me say it again, seventeen years. It is apparent that my job applications are not being taken seriously, which is why I was so upset when my erstwhile friends had the absolute gall to suggest that applying only doesn’t work until it does. And so as I reflect on this utter failure of a job hunt, in which I have been utterly forsaken by people who surely ought to have been able to help me,[2] my age (I am now 59) rises to the top of the list of possible reasons.

“Midlife men,” writes Ruth Ray Karpen, “especially those once considered at the peak of their ability and experience, are now widely discriminated against in the workplace. In some places, such as tech companies in Silicon Valley, discrimination starts at the age of 35.”[3] I was turning 42 when Axis laid me off.

No matter how much they may disavow explicit age discrimination, many companies try to portray themselves as cool places to work for young people. And indeed these companies are especially interested in hiring younger people: The median age at the hot tech companies ranges from 27 to 31. It’s 38 at IBM and 39 at Hewlett Packard, still young by most standards, but in the tech industry those are viewed as much stodgier places to work. Overall, the median age of American workers is a little over 42.[4]

It is, undoubtedly, fairly apparent that I was pretty naïve in approaching my job hunt and indeed my career. But as my finances reached a crunch point in 2003, I returned to school, in part because student loans could help to pay rent.

Because I suspected that “the jobs of the future” were a mirage, the quest for which could keep me returning to school indefinitely seeking new skills, I chose Communication as a major, vacillating between Mass Communication and Speech Communication. The programs had been merged at what is now California State University, East Bay (and the school now only offers a Communication degree at the Masters’ level). My fear of a mirage was ill-founded. While biotechnology remains a niche field, the same cannot be said of high technology. But I also came to understand that I had burned out on technology in 1985, when I bounced out the first time. I needed something different and I needed something that I could hope would be safe from chasing mirages.

While my academic work has failed to lead to gainful employment, I learned a great deal. It’s hard to imagine regretting the choice to return to school and I tend toward the view that everyone should be better educated.

Communication is principally a social science and so I was looking at a lot of social science research. A lot of pieces fairly rapidly started falling into place. I began to understand why my life had turned out so abysmally. It made me a radical.

It also grounds me with a healthy skepticism when, noting an aging workforce, Tyler Cowen optimistically writes that he

would suggest that the ability to spot, mobilize and deploy older workers is the next biggest source of competitive advantage in the U.S. The sober reality is that many companies should retool their methods to fit better with the experience and sound judgment found so often in older workers. That also will involve a retooling of the glamour notion to valorize the young less and the idea of maturity more. HR departments may have to work harder to help older workers keep up with new technologies.[5]

One thing I have learned, not only while in school, but from decades of work experience, is that employers prize control even more than they do profit. It shows up most potently in management texts that advocate greater stakeholder control over enterprises. This particularly includes worker control but also even weighs the environment. Even when this management style (branded “Theory Y”) repeatedly proves more profitable than the traditional, authoritarian style (“Theory X”), it simply does not persist in corporate culture and instead fades away, often in less than ten years.[6]

Management valorization of control, even over profit, is perhaps most visible at rush hour, when highways are clogged with commuters all trying, at management insistence, to be at the same place at the same time. It appears in my own experience with employers who are positively exuberant about their ability to treat workers as expendable, disposable, and infinitely replaceable. And it appears theoretically (as opposed to the “Theory X” and “Theory Y” pseudo-theories) in a functionalist conservative preoccupation with the preservation of their own position relative to the rest of society.[7]

Older workers have experience and knowledge that especially younger managers cannot match. The “Theory X” presumption that managers know best[8] is simply embarrassing when older workers are hired as subordinates. So in order to preserve their position, managers cannot hire older workers. The latter are a threat to the formers’ positions.

But Cowen’s optimism that more successful companies will be those that learn to employ older workers[9] relies on a narrow view of ‘success’ as profit rather than as control.

What we are far more likely to see is continued abuse of H-1B visas, as employers deceptively claim they cannot find U.S. workers with requisite skills when the reality is that they think they have to pay U.S. workers more money.[10] Donald Trump’s crackdown on these abuses[11] is likely to be short-lived; as far too many folks in subaltern groups are well aware, prejudice might never be overcome. And far too many economists repeat their neoliberal platitudes when they insist that H-1B visa employment is not a zero-sum game for U.S. workers.[12]

I have little reason to believe any relief for my job search woes is coming any time soon.

  1. [1]International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations, General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI), http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm
  2. [2]David Benfell, “To my friends,” Not Housebroken, April 7, 2017, https://disunitedstates.org/2017/04/01/to-my-friends/; David Benfell, “The Ethics of our Society,” Not Housebroken, September 8, 2017, https://disunitedstates.org/2017/09/08/the-ethics-of-our-society/
  3. [3]Ruth Ray Karpen, “Anti-Ageism: The Next Big Social Movement,” review of Ending Ageism or How Not to Shoot Old People, by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Tikkun, December 7, 2017, http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/anti-ageism-the-next-big-social-movement
  4. [4]Tyler Cowen, “Forget New Robots. Keep Your Eye on the Old People,” Bloomberg, May 17, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/amp/view/articles/2018-05-17/older-workers-will-help-companies-thrive
  5. [5]Tyler Cowen, “Forget New Robots. Keep Your Eye on the Old People,” Bloomberg, May 17, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/amp/view/articles/2018-05-17/older-workers-will-help-companies-thrive
  6. [6]Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years (Ventura, CA: Patagonia, 2012); Chip Conley, Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007); Gary Heil, Warren Bennis, and Deborah C. Stephens, Douglas McGregor Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000); Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008); Carol Sanford, The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011); Marvin R. Weisbord, Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).
  7. [7]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000); Anup Shah, “Consumption and Consumerism,” Global Issues, January 5, 2014, http://www.globalissues.org/issue/235/consumption-and-consumerism
  8. [8]Chip Conley, Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007); Gary Heil, Warren Bennis, and Deborah C. Stephens, Douglas McGregor Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000); Marvin R. Weisbord, Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).
  9. [9]Tyler Cowen, “Forget New Robots. Keep Your Eye on the Old People,” Bloomberg, May 17, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/amp/view/articles/2018-05-17/older-workers-will-help-companies-thrive
  10. [10]Ethan Baron, “H-1B abuse: Bay Area tech workers from India paid a pittance, feds say,” East Bay Times, May 1, 2018, https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2018/05/01/h-1b-abuse-bay-area-tech-workers-from-india-paid-a-pittance-feds-say/; Josh Eidelson, “The Tech Worker Shortage Doesn’t Really Exist,” Business Week, November 24, 2014, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-11-24/the-tech-worker-shortage-doesnt-really-exist; Karin Klein, “The truth about the great American science shortfall,” Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-stem-science-math-shortage-20140224,0,6706502.story; Julia Preston, “Large Companies Game H-1B Visa Program, Costing the U.S. Jobs,” New York Times, November 10, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/11/us/large-companies-game-h-1b-visa-program-leaving-smaller-ones-in-the-cold.html; Kyung M. Song and Janet I. Tu, “Do visas for skilled foreigners shut out U.S. tech workers?” Seattle Times, May 5, 2013, http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020924182_h1bworkersxml.html; Jordan Weissmann, “The Myth of America’s Tech-Talent Shortage,” Atlantic, April 29, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-myth-of-americas-tech-talent-shortage/275319/;
  11. [11]Marisa Kendall, “Report: Trump plans H-1B and other work visa reforms,” San Jose Mercury-News, January 31, 2017, http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/01/30/trump-poised-to-overhaul-work-visas-relied-on-by-silicon-valley-tech/; Catherine Lucey and Scott Bauer, “Trump order would target high-skilled worker visa program,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, April 17, 2017, http://www.startribune.com/trump-order-would-target-high-skilled-worker-visa-program/419664223/; Elliot Smilowitz, “US to slow processing of visas for high-skilled workers,” Hill, March 4, 2017, http://thehill.com/policy/technology/322338-us-to-slow-processing-of-visas-for-high-skilled-workers
  12. [12]Jessica Mendoza, “Right to work? In Silicon Valley, visa fight as symbol of blocked American dream,” Christian Science Monitor, April 27, 2018, https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2018/0427/Right-to-work-In-Silicon-Valley-visa-fight-as-symbol-of-blocked-American-dream

Subscribe to David Benfell, Ph.D. aggregator - David Benfell