COMMENTARY

Too old to get hired but too young to retire

Posted March 27, 2012, at 6:04 a.m.
Last modified June 16, 2012, at 7:44 a.m.
Michael Kinsley
Michael Kinsley

A friend of mine had his name in the paper the other day.

It was an article speculating about who might inherit a prestigious post in the literary world when the current grandee retires. The article said that my friend would have led the list 10 years ago. Ouch! The obvious though unstated implication is that now he’s too old. He just turned 60. He says he already has his dream job and didn’t mind the idea that, because he is 60, some career opportunities have moved beyond his reach. But I mind.

Another friend of mine, whom we’ll call “Nick” (because that’s his name), is doing something about it: He’s suing. Nick grew up in North Dakota and went to Stanford, where he graduated with honors and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. Unlike Greg Smith, the guy who wrote that already legendary op-ed piece about quitting Goldman Sachs, Nick never won any medals in the Jewish Olympics. On the other hand, he never worked for Goldman Sachs, so that’s a wash.

Where was I? Oh yes: So after Oxford, Nick went to Stanford Law School, where he was managing editor of the law review. He clerked for the Supreme Court, won election and re-election as attorney general of North Dakota, served for eight years, then lost a race for governor, went on to practice law and served as chief legal officer of several Fortune 500 companies. Then he decided that he wanted to teach.

If you want to become a law professor, one of the things you have to do is submit your resume (plus a fee) to the Association of American Law Schools. Every fall in Washington, the group holds a conference to recruit faculty, at which law schools interview candidates they are interested in. Just about every accredited American law school participates. Two years ago, of 172 law schools, only two offered Nick an interview, and he already worked part-time at one of them.

He got no job offers. Good heavens, why not? Was he attorney general of too small a state? Did the competition have even more Fortune 500 companies under its belt? Was it that lost race for governor — the only blemish of failure on his record of success?

Nick suspects otherwise, and I suspect he’s right: It’s age discrimination. He was 60 at the time. Now he’s 62. Law schools just do not hire people in their 60s as tenured or tenure-track professors, except for the occasional “adjunct” (temporary) professor moving up or a lateral transfer from another law school faculty.

Imagine how infuriating this must be to an ambitious guy like Nick. Three or four decades ago, law schools were beating down his door. Now they won’t even give him an interview. Meanwhile, the Georgetown University Law Center, for example, hired three people after the 2010 job fair, none of them with Nick’s shimmering credentials.

Of course, every law school will have reasons for a decision not to hire a particular candidate. Georgetown, for example, says the list of subjects Nick wanted to teach didn’t jibe with the subjects it needed to cover. But 172 law schools and not one job offer? It seems beyond reasonable dispute that age discrimination must be involved.

Not everyone will agree about how big an injustice this is. (I mean the behavior of the law schools. The fact that Nick, like many of us, is two years older than he was two years ago is an obvious and devastating injustice, with no remedy.) You may be thinking: “This guy’s a jerk. He’s won life’s lottery again and again. Instead of filing legal documents all about how his credentials are better than everybody else’s, he should be gracious, stand aside, and give some other people a chance at acquiring a bauble or two for their resumes.”

Well, Nick has been a friend of mine for many years, and he’s not a jerk. He would have made an excellent governor of North Dakota. But I do have qualms about his lonely legal campaign.

I don’t raise this topic easily or happily. I am one year younger than Nick. Of all the forms of discrimination that the law forbids — racial, gender, sexual orientation in some states — age discrimination is the one that nevertheless goes on most brazenly. Corporate recruiters and human resource departments are carefully trained to talk in code, saying that they’re looking for “fresh thinking” or “energy, dedication and willingness to work long hours.” You know what they really mean. Hiring or promotion to top positions in government and private corporations doesn’t even pay lip service to equal opportunity for people over age 60 or so.

Is this necessarily wrong? The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 begins with a “finding” of “rising productivity and affluence.” These are different times. In today’s zero-sum world, someone who sits on a tenured chair or other sinecure is denying a place to someone else, probably younger. Was the law ever intended to protect baby boomers in no particular financial distress looking for a suitable capstone to a successful career?

Of course, Nick Spaeth is entitled to whatever the law entitles him to, irrespective of my qualms or the unusual specifics of his case. But he’s much better off than the blue- collar and white-collar workers whose jobs are actually disappearing. The most severe staff reductions among white- collar workers have come in my own industry, the media.

My literary friend who apparently is 10 years too old for a job now held by an octogenarian may well be telling the truth when he says it wouldn’t interest him anyway. But remaining gracious as the generations shift is harder than I would have expected. Fortunately, we all get a chance to be victimized by this shift — if we’re lucky.

Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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