'What am I, chopped liver?'
Despite the talk about looming job shortages, older workers still face discrimination

Wednesday, October 16, 2002 – Globe and Mail Print Edition, Page C1

When he was still in his 50s, human resources executive Angelo Pesce fielded three or four calls a year from headhunters trying to entice him from his post at Toronto's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. At 60, Mr. Pesce found he had gone from hot to not. Executive recruiters still phone the odd time, he said in a recent interview, but they backpedal as soon as they find out he is pushing 63. "The question quickly shifts from 'Would you be interested?' to 'Do you know somebody who would be interested?' "

Subtle, perhaps, but not subtle enough to go unnoticed by Mr. Pesce, who -- by virtue of his status -- is in a position to combat age discrimination, at his own workplace at least. There is no mandatory retirement age at Baycrest, where roughly 35 of the centre's 2,000 employees are now over 65, said Mr. Pesce, vice-president of human resources. Mr. Pesce is putting together "a retiree alumni" -- a pool of retired employees who might be willing to come back on a part-time or temporary basis as needed -- and is also looking at other ways to make Baycrest a more "elder-friendly" workplace. One of the most delightful aspects of his work environment, Mr. Pesce said, is that he can take his granddaughter to the on-site child-care centre.

But for all the talk these days about demographics, the aging work force and looming labour shortages, Baycrest is still the exception rather than the rule. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has found that "discrimination on the basis of age can be experienced by people as early as 40 to 45, particularly in employment." Passed over for merit pay and promotion or pressured to take early retirement, many older workers are the victims of insidious -- yet difficult-to-prove -- discrimination in the workplace, Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Keith Norton said.

Older job-hunters now resort to leaving things off their résumés and deleting dates in an attempt to conceal their age from recruiters, said Judy Cutler of Canada's Association for the Fifty-Plus (previously known as the Canadian Association for Retired People). "They dye their hair, get plastic surgery," Ms. Cutler said. Her colleague William Gleberzon, associate executive director of the association, said these older workers have cause to be concerned: A recent event in Toronto, which billed itself as a national job fair, advised exhibitors that its target audience would be 18- to 54-year-olds. Offended older workers took their complaints to the Canadian Association for the Fifty-Plus, which has passed them on to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

"It's discriminatory, I don't know if it's illegal," Mr. Gleberzon said. "I got e-mails from people asking 'What's going on here? What am I, chopped liver?' " One of his correspondents, 57-year-old Jim Gough of London, Ont., was incensed when he came across the reference to 18- to 54-year-olds on the National Job Fair's Web site. After a 30-year career as an information technology specialist, Mr. Gough is now selling financial services products after a fruitless search for something in his field. "I personally know five to six folks in Toronto who have over 30 years of experience each, who are over 50, who have been job-hunting for one to 2˝ years and can't find a job," Mr. Gough said in an interview. "One of them, after 30-plus years of managing IT projects and staff, is now driving school buses . . .

"Their stories are similar to mine," said Mr. Gough, who considers himself lucky that he was able to switch to financial services. "Is it age discrimination? We're all absolutely convinced it's a very significant element. Can we prove it? No." Mr. Gough did not go to the National Job Fair, which was held on Sept. 25 and 26 in Toronto, attracting more than 100 employers and 9,000 job seekers. "Age discrimination is insidious, subtle and permeates our society, but I have never seen such a blatant, open example of it [as in the job fair's promotional literature]," he said.

Daniel Levesque, a co-president of the event, said in an interview last week that the reference to a target audience of 18- to 54-year-olds would be deleted from the Web site and that future promotions would refer to a target audience of 18 years and older. Mr. Levesque said he was surprised that anyone felt excluded, however, since the promotional material also mentioned that the fair was open to anyone who was interested in finding a job or changing careers. Mr. Levesque said the age reference was included because the exhibitors wanted to know who would be there -- which is precisely the problem, Mr. Gough said. "One can only conclude that the author believed that the phrase 18- to 54-years-old would heighten the interest of HR representatives," Mr. Gough said. "I must assume that this belief was based on an awareness of the attitudes of at least some members of the HR community."

Equally disturbing, he said, was that the event was co-sponsored by Adecco Group, one of Canada's largest staffing agencies. Last week, Adecco asked the job fair's organizers to delete the age reference from its Web site material. Stephane Jean, vice-president of marketing for Adecco Canada, said there is, in fact, a growing demand for older employees who want to remain in the labour force -- particularly since so many of their cohorts are opting for early retirement. The average retirement age is now 61 in Canada. "They [older workers] are, as we say in French, sage," Mr. Jean said. "They can add great value to an organization."

Baycrest's Mr. Pesce said employers are short-sighted when they overlook older workers as a talent source. The health care sector is already experiencing shortages, he said, which is why Baycrest is positioning itself to be an employer of choice for workers of all ages, including the more experienced workers. This means accommodating the needs of various generations, Mr. Pesce said. And it also involves recognizing that older employees work and learn differently than young people, he said. But what older workers might lack in stamina, they make up for in experience.

The abolition of mandatory retirement at Baycrest also means that older workers cannot expect to coast. "A 63-year-old will be held to the same performance standard as a 45-year-old," Mr. Pesce said. But if, for instance, an older worker wants to modify his or her hours in order to meet the demands of the job, that can be accommodated, he added, noting that he no longer schedules all-night negotiating sessions if he can at all avoid them.

Australian Robert Critchley, an international vice-president with the human resources consulting firm Drake Beam Morin, said older workers still encounter discrimination on the job, and it is tougher for them to find work when they are unemployed. But, he said during a recent visit to Toronto, this is changing -- by necessity. "In the 1990s, older workers were vulnerable," Mr. Critchley said. "Now, they have more career options than ever." More Canadians will be leaving the work force than entering it in the next decade as the baby boom generation approaches retirement age, he said in an interview.

In his new book, Rewired, Rehired or Retired: A Global Guide to the Experienced Worker, Mr. Critchley points to an emerging trend that he calls retractable retirement. "In Canada, many employers bring back retired employees on a consulting basis, paying them contractually for their services, even though they may have taken a voluntary retirement separation package." Mr. Critchley wrote that, while employers still have to shed some outmoded attitudes about older employees, the workers themselves have a responsibility to keep their skills up to date. And, he added, they should check that their own attitudes are not patronizing toward younger colleagues and supervisors.

Ms. Cutler, director of public relations and communications for Canada's Association for the Fifty-Plus, said she has not seen much evidence to date that employers see the silver lining in the ranks of their greying work forces. The calls and e-mails to her organization indicate that there continues to be a bias in favour of younger workers "because they are cheaper." Her organization has worked with the Ontario Human Rights Commission on a public awareness campaign to counteract "ageist" stereotypes. The poster campaign features photographs of older people, with the tag line: "Nobody has a shelf life. Stop age discrimination now."

The association also supports Mr. Norton's national campaign to abolish mandatory retirement. Given the good health and intellectual acuity that most 65-year-olds now enjoy, "common sense dictates that it is better for society to reap the benefits and contributions, in particular tax revenues, of having people working rather than drawing income from the state," Mr. Norton said in a recent speech, adding that in 30 years, almost one-quarter of Canada's population will be 65 or older.

However, laws and employment policies will not change until attitudes change. Even jokes can be hurtful, said the commission, which noted in a recent policy paper that many older employees do not regard "old fart" as a term of endearment.