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in his late 50s, had been replaced by a younger worker.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
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
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 plan. …