A Middle Ground For Older Workers

IN theory, being paid not to work could appear to be a dream come true. In practice, it can be far from enviable. Just ask a German production manager named Helmut Herzog, who has been at home for two years, drawing his regular paycheck while waiting for a call to return to work.

The arrangement began when his company, a manufacturing firm, made extensive cutbacks. With almost no one left to supervise, Mr. Herzog was sent home until his managerial skills would again be needed. Because he is almost 50 and has spent 25 years with the company, his seniority makes it almost impossible for his employer to let him go. A standardized point system tallies such factors as a worker's years of service, age, and number of children. An employee with at least 40 points has a right to say he or she won't accept what Herzog calls a ``blue letter'' of dismissal - the German equivalent of a pink slip.

In fact, so protective are the country's policies regarding older workers that, as Herzog explains, ``People over the age of 54 cannot be fired for social reasons.'' For poor performance, yes. In a downsizing, no.

Herzog has used his time off productively, earning another degree and turning unfinished space on the second floor of the family's house into an extra bedroom. Yet he is impatient to return to work, even though he appreciates the security of a steady paycheck and the eventual certainty of another job.

What a contrast between his protected status and corporate practices in the United States, where legions of workers in their 50s are being forced to leave because of downsizing. Some will find new jobs at comparable levels of responsibility and income. Others will not. Sweetened pensions help, but they cannot compensate for being forced out a decade or so before a normal retirement age.

Herzog calls the practice of letting senior workers go ``a crime'' because of the difficulties they can face in finding new jobs. But downsizing has become so common in American firms that one-quarter of employees between the ages of 51 and 61 think they have a 50-50 chance of being laid off without benefits within 12 months, according to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

Moreover, in the US, where staff reductions often fall disproportionately on older employees, age discrimination is difficult to prove. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that age-bias suits have increased nearly 15 percent during the past two years, prompting one executive recruiter to call age discrimination ``the workplace issue of the 1990s.''

The need for midlife reemployment becomes further evident in the existence of networking groups with names like Freelancers Over Fifty in Cambridge, Mass., and Forty Plus in New York. The definition of an ``older'' worker keeps getting younger.

Lifetime job security no longer exists. As one alternative, a handful of progressive firms in Silicon Valley, Calif., are forging what they call a ``new covenant'' with their staff. Workers receive no assurance of long-term employment, but managers do agree to give them opportunities that will make them more employable if they leave or are laid off.

Still, for those of a certain generation who have labored faithfully under the assumption that hard work and loyalty would assure a steady paycheck, the threat of a pink slip looms particularly large. Perhaps the time has come for American companies to find some middle ground between the protection German employees receive and the flexibility American employers enjoy.

The cherished democratic ideal of equality runs into a particularly shameful challenge when it comes to age discrimination - to say nothing of a rebuke from that favorite maxim: You're only as old as you think you are.

It is not a matter of compassion. It is the kind of accuracy associated with fair play that is at stake here. If Americans truly respect performance on its own terms, they will measure productivity on the job by numbers other than those arbitrarily calculated by age.

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