Fun with Dicks and Jane

You’d have to be Jane Musgrave’s age to remember the Dick and Jane children’s books.

Those simple, slender hardcovers taught mid-century Americans to read – and to accept some real traditional gender roles.

Jane Musgrave is anything but traditional. The Palm Beach Post reporter raised her daughter as a single mother and later adopted a son. At 57, she’s still a hard-bitten newspaper reporter, but one who’s embraced new technology so well that her news editor publicly lauded her in a blog post titled, Palm Beach Post social media star: Courts reporter Jane Musgrave.

That was 17 months ago. Last week, Musgrave was offered a “voluntary buyout” that she found slightly compulsory and fairly insulting.

Like many still-struggling newspapers, The Post is past the massive layoffs of the recession (because there aren’t any massive blocks of employees left) and is now targeting its older and more expensive employees. While not illegal, it’s certainly ageist – and a tad sexist and classist, since the mostly male senior executives aren’t being nudged out of their jobs.

It’s also short-sighted, since The Post itself has recently published articles called, Some employers see perks of hiring older workers and Older job seekers have track record, connections on their side.

This over-55 buyout was offered during a clumsy meeting that would’ve assuredly made the paper’s metro front if it happened at any other large local company. It’s no secret that newspapers have been informally forcing out older reporters for while, but this is the first such targeted buyout I’ve heard of. Then again, I don’t get out much.

But when Musgrave offered to tell her story, I was moved. Not only does she tell it well, she’s brave enough to put her name on it. Here it is…

My dad went kicking and screaming into forced retirement at age 75. My mom, unfettered by similar hang-it-up-now rules, retired at age 76.

This week, at age 57, I was told via email that I was a geezer who was surely ready to embrace those carefree days of golf and bridge games. Never mind that I loved my job, had expected to follow in my parents’ footsteps and had failed to learn the finer points of either of those otherwise fun-sounding pursuits.

Like roughly 40 other designated geezers at The Palm Beach Post, I was offered a “voluntary buyout.” All of us earned the designation by passing what otherwise didn’t seem like an important milestone: our 55th birthdays.

While I was out covering a trial and unable to attend the invitation-only geezer gathering, I’m told publisher Tim Burke said we were targeted because many of us had surely contemplated retirement and, if not, could probably use the skills we honed during decades in the news business to land other jobs.

The publisher, who turns 55 this month, doesn’t have to fret. As a bonus of his position, Burke isn’t being forced to contemplate his own carefree days of golf, bridge and frustrating (if not fruitless) job-hunting. And apparently, he hasn’t been paying attention to what all of us old farts have been doing the last several years.

Most of us have been working our asses off, hoping the economy improves and someone in the brain trust comes up with a way to save the business we love. While we wondered whether it could be done by posting videos of fender benders, dogs playing with babies and soft porn on our web site, we believed if we worked hard enough to cover for the colleagues we lost in the last wave of buyouts, we might have a fighting chance.

Instead, we are now faced with age warfare.

Since the emails went out, younger reporters have looked at us like fellow passengers on the Titanic. If we don’t jump overboard with our buyout packages in hand, there will be no room for them on the life rafts. Instead of us, the iceberg will be heading at them.

Some among them have graciously questioned the legality of targeting what we have dutifully learned is a “protected class.” However, as my friends in employment law and countless other geezer reporters at countless other newspapers know, if there’s one thing newspaper managers know, it’s the law.

By calling the program “voluntary,” it’s all perfectly legal. There are rules, of course. But as long as they don’t include packets of Geritol in the buyout packages or joke about the health care costs they’ll save on Viagra prescriptions they can decide one day that the life rafts are full and the geezers must go.

Even if it’s not legal, some legal advisers say, do you want to spend the rest of your life in court, proving you were wronged but right? Age discrimination cases take years. Make golf, not law.

Oddly, various publications have reported a reversal of the time-honored trend of getting rid of older workers who are more likely to command higher salaries. Some companies actually value experience and remember there’s a reason they pay experienced employees more. Many work faster and smarter. They teach younger workers the sometimes confusing tools of the trade.

A human resources manager said he preferred layoffs for that reason. Layoffs can target obsolete jobs and lazy or unproductive workers. They can cut the proverbial dead wood. Voluntary buyouts are scatter-shot. Managers don’t know who will leave or who they will be left with. Sometimes, he said, the results aren’t pretty. And neither is this.

In about three weeks, the results at The Post will be in. The jury is out on whether Burke will hit his goal of watching 15 to 20 of us grab our canes and limp out the door.

Times are still tough. We learned from the last round of buy-out victims that quick cash doesn’t cover long-term losses. Many who reluctantly, but hopefully, took the buyout five years ago are now freelancing for pennies on the dollar with no health insurance or paid vacations.

But the buyout then seemed fairer somehow. Anyone who had worked at the paper for at least five years was eligible. We lost young reporters and old editors and all ages in between.

This time, it’s only part of the newsroom that’s under fire. My forced retirement is another reporter’s job security. If the requisite number of designated oldsters don’t leave, younger reporters and editors, along with some older ones who don’t accept the buyouts, will be ushered out the door under far less favorable terms – one week of pay per year instead of two.

Many in our beleaguered business got nothing but the door. I understand that.

But whether we get the door with a so-called generous buyout or a door that leads to the unemployment office there’s no indication that this call for (in truly news-speak) voluntary or involuntary volunteers will be the last. And the way our geezer-first deal is structured, there’s no incentive for those left behind to dig deeper, write tighter and push harder, knowing that the payoff is that they’ll be spared.

The lesson? All it takes is to be born in the wrong year.

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