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Who are you calling old? Boomers push back against ageism they helped create

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TORONTO - The generation that embraced the mantra, "Never trust anyone over 30" is about to get a rude awakening — if they haven't already.

Baby boomers, who railed against the entrenched social discrimination of previous generations — from sexism to racism — are barrelling headlong into an "ism" they themselves may have done much to perpetuate: ageism.

And they don't like it one bit.

Those on the leading edge of this huge demographic, which kept millions of bassinets continually occupied from 1946 to 1965, began turning 65 last year, officially becoming senior citizens — a mantel many boomers wear with obvious discomfort.

At 62, Adina Lebo has experienced the unexpected fallout that too many birthdays can confer: after 21 years of providing marketing and promotional services for a major client in the Toronto arts and entertainment industry, she was shown the door. Finding new work has been a challenge, to say the least.

"One day when you least expect it, you find yourself out there looking for a job — and I don't think many people realize how difficult that is, because they're not looking for ME anymore," said Lebo, who is single and has no company pension.

"People weren't returning my phone calls. They weren't replying that they'd received my CV."

Age discrimination in the workplace may be partly a response to the economic downturn, said Susan Eng, vice-president for advocacy at CARP, an organization that promotes the interests of aging Canadians.

But it's not just cash-strapped companies weeding out higher-paid older workers through early-retirement incentives or outright layoffs.

Ageism, born of a deeply ingrained societal attitude, seems to be tolerated where other prejudices are not.

It shows its face in TV shows and movies that cater to younger audiences. It's in advertising campaigns that target youthful consumers, as do many products on the market, while often presenting the more mature among us as doddering "old farts."

"In the past, those of the boomer generation assumed that the ageism they saw their parents deal with —frankly ageism they themselves were guilty of — that they themselves would be exempt," said Eng.

In a what-comes-around, goes-around wrinkle of sorts, boomers are now feeling ageism's sting. But unlike their own parents and grandparents, who more often than not quietly accepted that it was time to give way to the younger generation, boomers are pushing back.

They still remain the largest single group in the population: 9.6 million people, or three of every 10 Canadians, are baby boomers, fresh 2011 census numbers released Tuesday indicate. Of those in Canada aged 15 to 64, a record high 42.4 per cent are aged 45 or older — almost all of them boomers.

Woe betide those business sectors that choose to ignore this bulging demographic, whose massive numbers and long-standing cultural influence still give it the lion's share of financial and political clout, said Eng.

"They are the ones transferring money to their children and have received massive transfers, inheritances from their parents. They make the most shopping decisions. They do the most high-end consumer spending. A higher percentage own their own homes versus other demographic groups."

They also hold immense sway over the ballot box: 70 per cent of those over 60 vote regularly and about 60 per cent of all ballots cast are by baby boomers, she said.

"So who are you going to annoy, politically speaking?"

Ageism can be a major barrier to accurately assessing a potential employee's value to a company,

"If people are trying to determine how productive we're going to be in the workplace, then age discrimination sneaks up in very interesting and subtle ways," particularly in job interviews, Foot said.

"Questions like, 'Are your parents still alive?' or 'Do you have grandchildren?' ought to be removed from the category of things that we can ask in a job interview if we want to get rid of ageism, and that's a way to start to nip it in the bud up front."

As life expectancy grows, employers are being forced to look at an older worker differently than in the past, said demographics guru and University of Toronto economics professor David Foot, co-author of the 1996 bestseller "Boom, Bust & Echo."

Someone who is 65 today is effectively more productive than a 65-year-old might have been 20 years ago, Foot explained.

"And so the sheer weight of the number of people moving into these age brackets will also have an impact, I think, in redefining the expectations of our society."

But the boomers are losing their clout as they age because their numbers are diminishing, Foot warned: as they move into higher-mortality ages, the ranks of the boomers are no longer being buttressed by similarly aged immigrants.

"The front end of the baby boomers, who are now in their 60s, is beginning to die, so the size of the baby boomers is actually getting smaller now," Foot said.

"By 2020, the boomers are going to gradually be outnumbered by the groups coming behind them, and therefore they won't have quite as many votes, quite as much power. There will still be a lot of them, and they will still have an influence in our society, but their influence, relatively speaking, will be gradually waning."

The baby-boom generation has had an enormous influence on societal norms over the last 50-plus years, and he doesn't expect their power to fade any time soon, said Michael Adams, president of the polling firm Environics.

They questioned the authority of religious leaders, protested the foreign policies of the political establishment, revolutionized the role of women with the feminist movement and refused to accept the "hierarchy of racism" that spawned a more pluralistic, multicultural society, Adams noted.

"This was sort of a generational rebellion, and so in that way we questioned a lot of things that have become quite normative — the idea of gender equality, racial equality, ethnic and religious equality," said Adams, 65, noting that about two-thirds to three-quarters of Canadians have adopted these values.

"This is such a profound legacy of boomer ideology ... (and) it is something that has been handed down to their children and grandchildren."

Adams, who recently penned the book "Stayin’ Alive: How Canadian Baby Boomers Will Work, Play, and Find Meaning In the Second Half of Their Adult Lives," suspects the generation's next logical step will be to stage a quiet revolution against ageism.

"And that's a two-edged sword. It says: 'You don't defer to me because I'm old, but you also don't put me down because I'm old.' They think: 'Judge me on the basis of the content of my character. Judge me on my vitality, judge me on who I am and not on my category.'"

That's certainly the attitude of Barry Everatt, who was terminated just shy of his 64th birthday by a multinational manufacturing company where he'd worked for 43 years, the last 25 of them in charge of compensation and pensions in human resources.

Everatt, who lives in Mississauga, Ont., had no interest in retiring and set out to find a new job. He soon realized his age was against him, despite his vast experience.

"The end result of that was I had about eight interviews, but it never went anywhere," he said. "I called them back and I never got return calls."

After two years of looking for employment, he gave up. "It just wasn't going to happen. And at that age, I didn't really feel I wanted to be retrained for something."

Instead, Everatt is volunteering with a local CARP chapter and helping to build houses through a local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. He's so busy, he wouldn't have time to work, he said.

"I never honestly believed that retirement would be sitting at home, watching television and kind of doing nothing," he says. "That's not me, because I'm always doing something and I don't like doing nothing."

Polls suggest that half of boomers want to keep working past traditional retirement age — and half of the reason is just to keep active, Adams said.

"They also want to earn the money — not just for food, clothing and shelter, but because they have their bucket list of all the things they want to do and to keep living at the level that they've been living."

Lebo said she's eager to see what opportunities she can create for the next phase of her working life.

"I'm a very young 62," she said.

"I work out an hour and a half a day. I'm in better shape now than I was in my 20s or 30s. From my perspective, I'm in the peak of my power. I'm looking for my next big job and my next big challenge.

"I'm not ready to be a Walmart greeter."

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