I’ve been struggling with this topic. It hits pretty close to home and sparks a bit of an existential crisis. In a couple of months, I turn 55.
I’m an author of 10 books, with another coming out this fall. I have a PhD — my thesis was published to great reviews in just about every newspaper in the country. Excerpts ran in Esprit de Corps, the Halifax Herald, the National Post, and the Ottawa Citizen. I’ve had academic articles published. I was invited, as a scholar of the media in the Second World War, to contribute to a collection of essays to commemorate the work of the renowned historian Terry Copp. My co-authors are among the best historians in Canada. I’ve won a whack of media awards, including a National Magazine Award. I’ve written for every big paper in Canada and most of the small ones as a freelancer.
And I’m unemployable.
As I said, I’m pushing 55. The very few jobs that open up in the news media are given to kids who work cheap and are completely pliant. In academia, young PhD grads are preferred, despite that they’re quite likely to become deadwood after they get tenure and spend 15 or 20 years teaching the same old courses.
I’m not alone. A recent survey found almost 28 percent of workers aged 45 or older felt they had been discriminated against on the basis of their age. I suspect the number of people over 50 would be even higher.
The first story I wrote for Ottawa Magazine was about Olive Dickason, a brilliant historian pushed out of her job because of her age. Dickason had been a journalist most of her career, but went back to school when she was middle-aged and earned her PhD. Her writing was fantastic. Her book, Canada’s First Nations, is probably used as a text at the University of Alberta, which fired her because she was old. It’s required reading in Native history courses everywhere else.
Dickason took her case to the Supreme Court of Canada. She spent her forced “retirement” writing and updating her books and advising students as a volunteer adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s History department, which had the good sense to make her feel welcome.
Now, I suppose I have no one else to blame for having spent my time learning two buggy-whip trades — journalism and academic history. But what I see in my life is becoming the norm through the workplace.
Older workers are expensive. They aren’t always pretty. There’s a misconception they can be stubborn — that they don’t understand younger people and their trends. Often, they’re older and more qualified than their potential bosses. Yet they tend to be eager, especially if they’re changing careers and are given a break.
What does that have to do with politics? We all know that governments have a tough time preventing discrimination in hiring — even for government positions. And, to be frank, fairness in hiring has never been an obvious government priority.
This is the problem: the old age pension eligibility date is about to rise to 67. Changes to the Canada Pension Plan will make it more difficult to retire early, even though often the present choice for older workers is welfare or early CPP.
So what happens to the person who loses their job at 50? Head to Walmart and get a job as a greeter? Flip burgers? Try to start a business?
I’m not griping about the proposed change to increase the OAS age to 67. I think, though, if we’re going to adapt to the new demographic reality, we need to look at the lack of value for, and the outright discrimination against, workers who are 45 and older.
I’m more than capable of supporting myself because my skills are portable and I’m adaptable. My books sell well, I have some great magazines that will run my work, and I teach the odd university course. But there are so many blue- and white-collar workers who have specialized skills that don’t translate to consulting, self-employment, freelancing, or whatever you want to call it.
And, unless that workplace mentality changes, we’re going to see an awful lot of people falling into poverty if they lose their jobs in late career, and that hardship will last even longer as the government expands that limbo period between middle-age and the arrival of the first pension cheque.