Peter Gosselin, a 2018 Influencer in Aging, has had a long and illustrious career as a journalist, but his biggest and most important story may have been the exposé he and reporter Ariana Tobin recently wrote for ProPublica: “Cutting ‘Old Heads’ at IBM.” As an investigative reporter on the aging beat at the nonprofit journalism outlet, Gosselin’s story documented a pattern at IBM of laying off older workers and replacing them with younger, less experienced, lower paid ones.
Gosselin, 67, spent 14 years at The Boston Globe (including some on the famed Spotlight investigative team) and then 10 years as national economic correspondent at The Los Angeles Times, before he was laid off at 63 — the same week his twins started college. He worked for President Obama for a bit and ProPublica hired him in 2017 to cover the aging beat from Washington, D.C. He was recently named inaugural senior fellow at Hunter College’s Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging, where he’ll produce data-driven enterprise news coverage of the forces shaping the lives of Americans 50 and older.
Next Avenue: When you started covering aging at ProPublica, what did you think you’d write about and how did that evolve?
Peter Gosselin: Whenever a reporter comes to a new beat, there’s a learning curve. Very quickly I realized what I needed to learn was the law about age and age discrimination. And the big find was there for anybody to see, but it wasn’t clearly observed by the general public: The age discrimination law [The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967] has been gutted. And the kinds of protections people think are there — and for decades were treated as the same as for African Americans, other minorities, women and people of different sexual orientation — have been gutted.
So I wrote a number of stories to try to point some of the most egregious ways the law has been cut back.
For example, the aim of the law was to give older people a chance to get hired and work according to their abilities. But starting in the 1990s, courts cut back protections for age. A number of conservative appeals courts decided there are protections if you are an employee, but not if you are a job applicant.
How did the IBM story come about?
I was talking to the young woman who became my co-author on the project, an engagement reporter at ProPublica named Ariana Tobin. When I left journalism, there was no such thing as engagement reporting, so I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was talking about. She said I should write about my experience [getting laid off and having difficulty getting hired due to age] and put it out there. So I did a social media callout and asked: Got a story about work and being over 50? Tell us about it. We got a huge response and loads of the responses came from ex-IBM employees. They led us to the story. Then we did another social media callout directed at IBMers and got thousands of responses. I’d never done an investigative project with 1,000 or more sources before. When you get that kind of response, you can begin to see patterns. The one that stood out strongly was that IBM retired older, longer-serving employees.
Some of the documents looked across thousands of people at IBM and showed there was a point system that was age-biased. The most vulnerable for layoff were older and we had the company’s assessment of the workers’ performance and likely projections of where they’d go if they stayed at the company. The very people they were picking [for layoffs and retirement] were ones who had very high performance ratings. And IBM said most of these people would likely be promoted or would stay in the high levels they were at.
Why do you think you heard from so many ex-IBMers?
We did hear from other companies; that’s fodder for what’s to come. But one of the reasons I think the response was so great from IBMers is that IBM has a long history as a progressive company and, to this day, touts that on every other issue of diversity and inclusiveness except age. It’s the mismatch between the company’s stated values and what it does to its older, long-serving, loyal workers that sends IBMers around the bend.
What has the response been?
For something considered not a hot topic, between the hits on the ProPublica site and on Mother Jones, which co-published it, and Vox.com’s video based on it, there have been something like a million unique views, which is astounding. The fact that the Vox video got so many views says something; these are not boomers, in general; they are millennials and younger.
Almost to a person, among millennials on the staff at ProPublica, they see the IBM story as a cautionary one for them. Ariana Tobin said [about layoffs of older workers]: ‘It’s one more thing I’ve got to watch out for after 50.’
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC], which enforces all our employment discrimination laws, has launched a nationwide investigation into IBM. It’s hard to tell where it’s going but these types of investigations are very rare.
The EEOC does seems to be getting tougher on age discrimination lately. What do you make of that?
I think they are. A good deal of it is the 50th anniversary of the age discrimination law and using it as a hook to get attention because they [the EEOC] see the law as having been terribly damaged. The acting Republican chair of the commission has been quite outspoken about this.
We haven’t had the ‘me-too’ moment yet with age, but it’s the same kind of thing.
How common do you think what happened at IBM is, and why?
I thing age discrimination in employment, and other realms of life, is rampant. We’ll be able to show this in parts of the economy that are much more sedate than technology, including in journalism. Age discrimination is the ‘acceptable bias.’ And it’s widely supported by people’s own view of themselves and their age cohort — that we’re not as sharp as we used to be.
It will be important to show what I think is true: that people are being shunted off out of full participation in the labor market against their will far more than surveys and the current sense of the country would have you believe.
But we’re not in the way of younger people in the workplace. The economy expands to meet the supply of labor that exists.
Also, it’s not true that turning 65 makes you demented. There’s an assumption even among fiftysomethings and sixtysomethings that we’ve lost it. Assuredly, time and age wear at you. You have to think about ceding ground as you get older in many ways. But the world has changed, too. Life expectancy and our health has changed for the better. The notions of a typical length of a healthy, full-blown human life are out of date. So we end up in a bizarre situation — people who are fully capable and vital are being shown the door and that’s got to stop.
Can journalists help change employers’ attitudes and practices toward older workers?
I do believe bringing more piss and vinegar to this issue of employment and the ability to work longer, the right to work longer, can have a huge effect.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of age discrimination in workplaces?
I have to say 18 months into this being my beat, I find two things that are discouraging: It’s built into society in a way I didn’t fully appreciate; we really do have an infatuation with youth, so we’re pushing against a headwind to make change. And it’s also surprising that a lot of the problem is us. Many older people have an attitude toward themselves that is extraordinarily defeatist. It completely baffles me.
I had dinner with a journalist friend who took a retirement package at 55 and said ‘I didn’t have the snap anymore so I needed to get out of the way.’ I said to her: ‘Did you miss a deadline? Did you make a mistake in a story? Did you not see a story that younger people did?’ She offered zero evidence of any of those.
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