“I can’t breathe…” These desperate words of George Floyd pinned to the ground by a policeman’s knee were broadcast to a shocked world by viral video. They helped launch throughout 2020 and 2021 national protests that involved millions of black, white and brown Americans and put us on a potential path to achieve racial justice and end police brutality.
Throughout that period, those same desperate, breathless words were uttered by tens of thousands of victims of COVID-19, as they struggled in their final moments for the oxygen that could keep them alive. Black, white and brown, men and women, to date more than 600,000 of our fellow citizens have drawn their last breath on respirators. Ninety-five percent were 50 or older and 20% were black. And while COVID grips our nation’s attention, there is little focused outcry and limited response to what amounts to the unique mass death of the elderly.
And worse, the devastation of older Americans is not confined to the pandemic. They were its economic victims as well, facing unique, disproportionate discrimination in the workplace. For the first time in half a century, they led the massive surge in unemployment in the categories of first fired and last re-hired. While older black, female and non-college educated workers saw the highest rates of unemployment and slowest return to work, the average unemployment rate for all older workers was 9.7% vs. 8.6% for mid-career workers – a reversal of historic patterns. Both years set records for early retirement – some voluntary, but mostly involuntary.
Who will speak for them?
We are an aging society. People live longer while at the same time resources for a sustainable retirement diminish daily. Capable workers are let go simply because of their age and face formidable obstacles in finding new jobs. Pensions have been engineered out of existence, replaced randomly with less valuable 401Ks. And even these shaky lifelines have been depleted by desperate borrowing during the 2008-9 Recession and the current economic calamity. Soon Social Security, the one reliable source of retirement income for most Americans, will come under predictable assault by its traditionally debt-obsessed opponents seeking a scapegoat for their own profligate spending.
Facing these multiple challenges and fearing for their futures, one could expect this massive cohort of Americans to be flexing their considerable muscle to seek justice – decent final years in exchange for all they have contributed. After all, they represent the largest and most reliable voting bloc in every election everywhere. The 55+ market is a massive target for sellers of every product from health insurance to cell phones and wrinkle cream. And ironically, in an economy threatened by low birth rates, the 55+ workforce will be one of few major sources of new hires when post-COVID growth kicks in.
Yet despite this clear potential power, aging workers and retirees remain largely invisible as a social and political force. They are more acted on than actors, more victims than victors. We launched Respectful Exits in 2018 to challenge this reality. We are bringing together older Americans and respectful employers to transform employer practices and strengthen retirement systems. While most so-called senior organizations focus on retiree needs and are presumed to speak for older Americans, none serve as assertive advocates for workplace change. Few acknowledge that the very concept of “retirement” is disappearing. Aside from the widely photographed luxury senior compounds around golf links in sunny Florida, the Sam’s club greeter needing continued work is today’s more typical icon.
Disruption vs. discounts Aging Americans need affordable, quality services and useful advice on the perils facing the elderly. They benefit from what AARP and others provide. But in these times of longer lives, diminished opportunity and unsustainable retirements their need for immediate and dramatic change has become vital. Respectful Exits intends to fill the glaring void in social and workplace advocacy. We are committed to organizing the aging workforce (workers, semi-retirees and retirees) through workplace, community, regional and national forums into a social force that fights age discrimination, transforms workplace practices and strengthens retirement systems. We promote age-inclusive policies and practices, demanding that employers and government:
- End 55-65 and other “sell-by” dates
- Implement career-long development of all employees
- Normalize phased retirement and all flexible options
- Provide free, ongoing financial counseling to all workers
- Stabilize Social Security by equally taxing all employees
In these turbulent times only the most insistent voices and the best organized people will secure healthy futures. Passivity has left millions without the work, savings and retirement supports needed for today and tomorrow’s longer lives. Older Americans have contributed to our great national wealth and we must fight together to get the respectful work and exits we deserve. Join us in building this long-overdue movement.
Milk curdles, people don’t