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The Author Speaks

What an Older World Means

Interview with Ted C. Fishman, author of "Shock of Gray"

Q. They had a bias toward youth.

A. Yes. It was a kind of arbitrage going on, an actual selection process. A decision was being made to shed the burdens companies have with older workers, and to hire hundreds of millions of hard-working people in China, as well as to invest a trillion dollars or so to create an urban infrastructure. Maybe globalization is in some ways a sophisticated form of age discrimination, I thought. That was the kernel. The countries that win in globalization now are the countries that do the least for their older people.

Q. Clearly, this includes the U.S.

A. Yes, and you'll notice that corporate CEOs don't say they're CEOs of American companies anymore. They say they're CEOs of global companies.

Q. So what does the older American worker who wants to work and has something valuable to contribute do to remain a vital employee in this reality?

A. Older workers have a justifiable reputation for being relatively poor learners when it comes to technology. But if retirement is not on their horizon, they become much better learners. So if you think, I'll only need these skills for a few years, then that translates into a cognitive limitation. But if you view it as skills that you need and are going to use constructively for some time, you will learn far better.

Q. Yet workers today need to acquire most of those skills on their own, since most companies no longer have budgets for training, as they used to.

A. That's true. But the older worker must get those skills somehow. It's a kind of career insurance to survive. If you view a job as just something that keeps you working, you'll be shoved into the second tier of the economy and make 20 percent to 50 percent less than you did before, if you get any job at all. But if you work to make yourself valuable, you'll have a much better shot.

Q. What kinds of workers have the best shot?

A. Those with higher skill levels have the more durable jobs — the accountants, lawyers, engineers — as opposed to the service industry, where people work in less-skilled, more manual jobs.

Q. The service sector is growing, offering opportunities for many older workers. Your thoughts?

A. There's another form of age discrimination at work here. The world is really smart at disemploying older people when they're too expensive, and incredibly smart at employing them when they're a bargain. The way you make them a bargain is to convert them into a giant contingent workforce, in which they're bound to part-time jobs, and minimum wage jobs, and contract work. That way, you get rid of whatever pension plan and other benefits they had when they were shoved out of the workforce.

Q. So a 72-year-old man now working at a shop down the street is right in the middle of this.

A. If you see a 72-year-old "shop boy" sweeping with a broom, don't think he's a shop boy. He's somebody who once had a career, and now he's working this job for half his wage because he needs to. Wherever you look in America, this scenario is at play. We can't get away from the aging of our country.

But on the other hand, this happens to be the result of the most wonderful thing humankind could ever give itself, which is more years on the planet for all of us — that, and the emancipation of women. So overall, this is real progress for the world.

Q. You say we need young Americans to look after the growing ranks of older Americans. Can our society accommodate this?

A. There's a lot of good will with families, but how they actually operate varies. If the professional or social service network is advanced enough, families can manage these things. Of course, there's a lot of stress and injury that comes with the caregiving job. It ripples down through the family and eventually it hits somebody who's in the heart of his or her career.

Q. Why is "family reciprocity" — a term you use — so important?

A. Grandparents are often enlisted as low-cost care providers for younger families. Sometimes they want to do it, and other times they really don't. But sometimes it's all a family can get. One of the universal motivations in the U.S. is, "Is this an investment for the time when I am needy? Will there be some family reciprocity? If I can be an effective grandparent, maybe there's some hope for me."

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