I've been working on a story for Bankrate.com's retirement channel on dealing with age discrimination. In the process of researching it, I talked to Howard Eglit, a professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law, a labor arbitrator and expert on discrimination issues. Here's his tough-talking view of this retirement planning issue.
Eglit says: "There is no question that older people confront a phenomenon called ageism, a kind of bigotry that occurs not only in the workplace, but everyplace.
"Look at birthday cards. Forty percent of birthday cards make fun of various aspects of getting older -- suggesting that older people are constipated, forgetful, sexually inadequate ...
"In the workplace, you find the same kinds of assumptions. Older people are regarded as being lacking in current skills, especially computer skills. Is that true? Yes, to some extent that's true. Computer use isn't second nature for people born before the computer age.
"Older people are thought of as being deadwood -- less creative. Is that true? Probably so. If you've been working for 25 or 30 years, you aren't going to be as eager-beaver as a 25-year-old.
"Older people are regarded as being physically challenged. When older people get sick, they are out of the workforce for longer periods of time. Injuries and illness are a bigger deal. But the accident and absentee rate is actually lower for older workers than it is for younger workers. Younger workers are much more likely to call in and take a day off here and there. But when older people get sick, they are out for much longer.
"Older workers are thought to be more expensive because of health insurance. That depends on the size of the employer. When you have 10,000 employees, a skewing toward older workers isn't going to make much of a difference. If you have a workplace with 30 workers and 20 of them are 50 or older, health insurance is going to be more expensive because of greater usage.
"Older people are thought to be mentally slower than younger people -- you can't teach an old dog new tricks. But that isn't true. The studies are consistent in saying that older people don't suffer intellectual deficits.
"Most of these are widespread cultural misunderstandings. When employers rely on them, they generally don't have discrimination in mind. They are simply accepting commonly held beliefs. So age discrimination is very hard to prove.
"That's not to say that it can't be devastating. When a 55-year-old white male who is a vice president of a bank making $110,000 a year loses his job, the likelihood of him being able to find another job with equal responsibility and pay is slim. Another bank isn't going to hire him because he doesn't have skills that can't be replicated by someone 35 who is willing to work for much less money."
So what do people do when it happens to them?
"Suck it up, and move on with your life. When people lose their jobs at this age, they are always so angry and hurt. It is devastating -- financially and psychologically. People identify with their jobs, but they have to move on."