“They” Are Taking “Our” Jobs: It’s Déjà Vu

“They” Are Taking “Our” Jobs: It’s Déjà Vu

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With persistent high unemployment and early 2012 presidential-election positioning on jobs, economics, and U.S. fiscal issues, an old argument has again taken new life: “They” (the aging baby boom demographic, in today’s case) are taking “our” (the younger generation’s) jobs – presuming, of course, that a fixed number of jobs exist and that they must be won through competition or nepotism.

There is plenty of historical precedent for fierce jobs competition in this country. In the 1860s, Americans feared that freed slaves would compete for “their” work; in the early 20th century, women broke out of domestic roles and competed for jobs; and in the 1960s, middle-class women fought for the right to hold jobs that were traditionally monopolized by men, as demonstrated in the 1969 case Weeks vs. Southern Bell.

Recent debates about immigration, outsourcing, and trade deficits once again raised the “job stealing” specter, and today there’s a fresh twist, as the aging and the young are vying for a sparse number of jobs in a stagnant economy – even while the aging are creating their own jobs and expanding the economy in the process.

Both blue- and white-collar jobs are involved. The president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO retired recently, saying that a younger person would be a better fit for the job, while succession struggles at a premier LA law firm (not exactly a new issue) became national news.

But if history is a guide, diverse groups of people can work together to grow the economy, expand wealth, and increase benefits for all, as James H. Schulz and Robert H. Binstock argued in their book, Aging Nation: The Economics and Politics of Growing Older in America. No, this process won’t be seamless. According to a recent poll by the Society for Human Resource Management, Intergenerational Conflict in the Workplace, almost three in four HR professionals believe that conflict between the generations exists in their workplace – while only two percent of the professionals say that their organization actively works “to a large degree” to improve these conflicts. Given the demographic reality of aging populations in the 21st century, there is no choice but to work together, no matter how difficult this task might be. It can be done.

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Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.