IT is an anniversary George Washington Gaw would rather not remember: the Friday afternoon last June 9 when he was called into the personnel office and abruptly dismissed from his $71,000 post as senior associate for an architectural firm.
"No reason was given," Mr. Gaw recalls, adding that three weeks later he received a letter from the president stating the firing was not Gaw's fault. "He said business was bad and he had to let me go. But they kept the younger guy who worked under me. They gave him a raise, and he took over a lot of my responsibilities for less than half the salary."
The experience marked the third time in five years that Gaw, now in his late 50s, had been replaced by a younger worker. In 1985, the Irvine, Calif., international consultant design office where he worked as a vice president appointed a new president - "a 41-year-old industrial designer who systematically went through the place and got rid of anyone who was 42 or over."
Then, Gaw says, on his next job at a college of design in southern California, "the college terminated the president I was working under and put in a 42-year-old as president." As a result, a position he had been promised as director of an international school in Europe went to an assistant director who was younger.
Although Gaw's case may be extreme, it illustrates a growing problem facing workers in their 50s and 60s: unemployment that appears to be the result of age discrimination.
The 1967 federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers 40 and over from discrimination based on age. But last year, in Massachusetts alone, the state's Commission Against Discrimination received 600 complaints. This year the agency has already received 500 complaints. And during the past 18 months the New England regional office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has received 806 charges of age discrimination, according to Charles Looney, director.
"The United States and South Africa are the only two Westernized nations where it is legal to fire somebody without just cause," says Ellen Messing, an attorney with Shilepsky, Messing & Rudavsky in Boston.
As economic conditions force companies to restructure, employers often face difficult decisions about which employees to keep. For some workers in their 50s, offers of early retirement come as a welcome chance to leave the workplace or change jobs. For others, "golden handshakes" appear to be a way to replace older, more highly paid employees with younger, less expensive ones.
Last year a Yankelovich poll of 400 companies identified two obstacles hindering those over 50: lingering questions about their ability to adapt to new technology, and the rising cost of health care.
Again and again during a four-hour public hearing on age discrimination in employment, held earlier this month in Boston's Faneuil Hall, unemployed workers like Gaw offered first-person accounts of being fired in mid-life. In voices struggling to contain anger and bitterness, they told of the shock and humiliation of suddenly being "out on the street" after years of work - years often rewarded with merit raises and good performance reviews.
One 57-year-old father of nine, testifying anonymously, explained that after being recruited by a firm, he built a staff and made his department profitable. Then, six months ago, he says, "I was told I was being replaced by an individual 20 years younger who happens to be the brother of the chairman of the board. He has no experience."
For Henry Bader, a 16-year employee of Polaroid, where he worked as a research fellow, the first sign of trouble came two weeks after a merit raise. On a performance review, he says, "I suddenly went from `excellent' to `unsatisfactory."' Then he was urged to accept a voluntary severance …