The Dogged Investigative Reporter on the Aging Beat
How ProPublica's Peter Gosselin got the story on IBM and its older workers
When you think of investigative reporting, your mind probably goes to journalists digging for dirt on political malfeasance. Peter Gosselin, a contributing reporter at the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, has a very different investigative beat: Americans 60 and older. More specifically: age discrimination and the treatment of older workers.
His recent exposé of IBM laying off older workers and replacing some with younger, less experienced, lower paid ones — Cutting ‘Old Heads’ at IBM — is a masterful example.
'Old is Bad, Young Is Good'
“What’s driving [the corporate trend to get rid of older workers] are very powerful notions that old is bad, young is good and there’s no such thing as wisdom,” Gosselin told me. He comes to that conclusion based on his last year's reporting on older workers and, as someone in his late 60s, on his personal experience.
The award-winning reporter, whom I met last year at Columbia University's Age Boom Academy program for journalists covering aging, spent 14 years at The Boston Globe (including some on its famed Spotlight investigative team). He then worked for 10 years as national economic correspondent at The Los Angeles Times, where he helped devise data reporting techniques showing that business and government were shifting risks to American working households.
Laid Off at 63
“The week my wife died, the Los Angeles Times declared bankruptcy,” Gosselin says. He was laid off at 63, the same week his twin children started college. Gosselin wound up taking a job as chief speechwriter to Obama’s Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, and then as an economic adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services. “I was away from journalism for most of the last decade,” Gosselin says.
ProPublica hired him in January 2017 when he made a pitch to cover the aging beat. “I wanted to see how discriminatory practices work, if I could find them,” he says, adding, “They knew I wanted to cover aging, but I wanted to bring more piss and vinegar to the subject.”
Gosselin’s IBM story does just that.
IBM, Older Workers and Age Bias
In the much talked about piece — co-published with Mother Jones and co-written by ProPublica engagement reporter Ariana Tobin — Gosselin reveals how, over the past five years, IBM cut tens of thousands of U.S. workers, “hitting its most senior employees hardest and flouting rules against age bias.”
Says Gosselin: “The extent to which IBM has been dumping older workers is really jaw-dropping.”
Among his story’s findings — based on a crowdfunded questionnaire filled out by over 1,100 former IBMers, exhaustive interviewing and scrutinizing documents written by IBM executives, managers and consultants — IBM:
- Let go of at least 20,000 American workers age 40 and older during the past five years, about 60 percent of its estimated total U.S. job cuts
- Had a corporate strategy to “correct seniority mix,” according to a confidential planning document
- Targeted people for layoffs and firings with techniques that “tilted against older workers, even when the company rated them high performers” yet 80 percent of older employees were rated good enough to stay at their current job levels or be promoted
- Encouraged employees targeted for layoff to apply for other IBM positions while “quietly advising managers not to hire them”
- Told some older employees being laid off “that their skills were out of date, but then brought them back as contract workers, often for the same work at lower pay and fewer benefits”
- Denied older workers information the law says they need to decide whether they’ve been victims of age bias
- Required older workers to sign away the right to go to court or join with others to seek redress
- In 2016, severance payments to departing employees were reduced from six months to just 30 days
IBM responded with a two-sentence statement: “We are proud of our company and our employees’ ability to reinvent themselves era after era, while always complying with the law. Our ability to do this is why we are the only tech company that has not only survived but thrived for more than 100 years.”
The “old heads” description in the story’s headline comes from a 2006 paper from one of IBM’s consulting arms that seemingly praised the company’s boomers’ experience but described them as “gray hairs” and “old heads.” Said Gosselin: “It’s nominally saying ‘we really need these experienced workers but, by the way, they’re not so good at tech anymore.'”
Thank You for Your Years of Service
That, he added, was a theme coming up time and again during his interviews with older, former full-time IBM workers like these:
- Marjorie Madfis and six other members of her nine-person digital marketing team at IBM (all women in their 40s and 50s) were laid off in 2013, the story said. Madfis was 57 and had worked there 17 years. The two who kept their jobs were younger men. IBM wouldn’t give Madfis a written explanation for why she was let go. “The only explanation,” she said in the story, “is our age.”
- Paul Henry said when he learned at 61 in 2016 that he’d lost his job as a sales and technical specialist, an IBM executive told him to “keep your mouth shut and go quietly.” He applied for over 150 jobs during the next year, running though much of his savings, before snagging a temporary position.
- David Harlan worked as an IBM marketing strategist from his home in Moscow, Idaho, for 15 years. Last year, at 50, he got an email congratulating him on “the opportunity to join your team in Raleigh, North Carolina,” 2,600 miles away. He resigned instead.
- Ed Miyoshi, a 35-year IBMer from Hopewell Junction, N.Y., in 2016 received an email saying he needed to eliminate the one U.S.-based employee left in his group — which was him. Two weeks later, he started work as a subcontractor for IBM, earning 20 percent less than what he’d earned before.
Crowdsourcing to Get the IBM Story
Crowdsourcing — or engagement reporting — was key to lifting the veil at IBM.
After Gosselin and Tobin used social media to ask older workers and retirees, generally, about their work lives, they started seeing complaints about IBM popping up. So they followed up with requests for information about the company’s treatment of its older workers.
What they received: 183 respondents said IBM recorded them as having retired by choice even though they “had no desire to retire or flat-out objected to the idea;” 45 were told they’d have to uproot their lives and move, sometimes thousands of miles from the communities where they’d worked for years, or resign and 53 said their jobs had moved overseas.
“IBM is really an iconic company for our generation,” says Gosselin. Its founders “built an extraordinary corporate culture that was very progressive, almost messianic. They weren’t selling computers. They were saving the world.”
So to its older workers who felt they lost their jobs due to their age, “the sense of betrayal was, and remains, huge,” notes Gosselin. The company “lived by a credo of inclusiveness and diversity, and that’s not how they were treated when they got older.”
Gosselin doesn’t think IBM fired so many older workers purely because their salaries and benefits were high. “A lot of the reason had more to do with a style statement than a business strategy,” he says. “What drives this is a sense very much deep in American culture that innovation is the province of the young.”
Not Unique to IBM
Indeed, Gosselin thinks that what he found at IBM is hardly unique to that company or even to the tech industry.
“People are telling us stories about this kind of thing happening in manufacturing and other industries,” says Gosselin. And the trend of firing full-time workers and then bringing them back as contractors with less pay and benefits? “We hear about that all over the place,” he notes.
Gosselin is quick to say that he believes young workers are essential and offer necessary skills. That said, he adds, “there is such a thing as wisdom, which comes with age, and that is not very valued.”
How to Help Gosselin on Future Stories
For future ProPublica stories, Gosselin wants to determine to what extent people who describe their departure from the full-time, full-year workforce as “voluntary retirement” were actually pushed or coerced or strongly encouraged by their employers to leave.
So Gosselin told me he’d like people to email him ([email protected]) with the answer to this question:
If you stop and think back on how you came to the decision to retire, do you think it was freely made and voluntary or less than voluntary?
You can also look for his upcoming story on the pending Supreme Court ruling on whether employees can band together to pursue a case regarding work-related claims.
The Future for Older Workers
Some reporters and economic analysts lately have said they think the tide has begun turning away from age discrimination by employers. They maintain that not only are older workers increasingly being hired and retained but that this will become truer in coming years when there won’t be enough younger workers to get the job done. Gosselin doesn’t buy it.
“The notion that there’s an economic imperative to hang onto workers longer is complete malarkey,” he says. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen. It doesn’t square with my sense of how the world works.”