Opinion: We, Gray Americans

By Michael Shur

Our great country is multiracial and multicultural. For generations, we have been trying to overcome racial and gender discrimination, and we are better and richer for the progress we have made. This has not been easy or automatic, but now equality is mandated by law, and any company or university receiving federal contracts or public funds proudly states that it does not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age or national origin.

Racial minorities and women are protected classes under the law. Each university has an Office of Vice-Provost for Diversity, whose job is to support diversity and enforce this law.

But there is another protected and growing class us, Senior Americans and the Vice-Provosts for Diversity might be surprised to hear that they should care about us as well.  Do not discriminate on the basis of age Come on

When we came to this country as Soviet refugees in 1976, I was 33 years old.  After the nightmare of Soviet life, the United States looked to us like a paradise on earth. One unexpected benefit for me was that my Soviet degrees and experience were somewhat discounted, and I wound up in a professional group with those about 10 years younger.  To start from scratch actually helped my career. My wife (a Ph.D. in theatre and film) became a computer programmer in the States. But, fifteen years later, she decided to go back to school and get an American degree in theatre. After her graduation, we became a typical academic couple and looked for a university where we might both teach. This is how I was first exposed to the issue of age discrimination. While making me an offer, the dean told me that this would be my last place of employment. I was surprised. Why? I asked. Well, you are fifty-four… he replied. It did not matter that I felt like I was 30, the dean knew what he was talking about and everybody in academia or industry knows it as well.

A few years later, at a research meeting, a professor in his late 40s was giving a talk. He said, These senior’ people took over our field with their old ideas But we will throw them out. I knew his work, slavishly following ideas proposed by others. I looked at my senior colleagues, who had built the reputation of this University, and took a deep breath. It is prohibited by law to discriminate on the basis of age I said. The professor apologized.

But what is the problem? Why not let people retire after 65 and give younger people a chance to fill their positions? For a few good reasons! First of all, the number of elderly people is increasing at an alarming rate. Soon, countries like the United States, Japan and South Korea will have more senior citizens than children under the age of 14. One proposed solution in this country has been to privatize social security. Indeed, why would we not want to give the financial industry that so ably led us into the mortgage crisis a chance to squander our social security? Well, don’t count on it, you financial geniuses; we paid into the system, we vote, and there are so many of us. And since our society will have to support the social security system in some form and shape, we need a larger, not smaller, workforce. In spite of stereotypes, many of us have valuable experience and insights that make us highly competitive in our professions. Why should our society discriminate against some of its best and most reliable workers?


Perhaps some of this vicious prejudice against senior people is our own fault. As a group, we are gentle and tolerant, willing to step aside, and willing to laugh at ugly jokes at our expense. We should learn from African-Americans and women nobody gave them equality on a silver platter they fought for it!

By law, special and reasonable arrangements must be provided to handicapped people in places of employment. Why not have similar provisions for senior citizens? Our society has zero tolerance toward child abuse, but senior abuse is a huge and rapidly increasing problem. Do we hear much about it?

And we, senior engineers, have special responsibility. For example, why can’t we design special lighting for the elderly? I, for one, know how to do it. Better lighting will help us feel better, read easier, and sleep more soundly. Office work will become less tiring. Why can’t we deploy ultraviolet-light-emitting diodes to prevent the spread of infections among the elderly? We, senior electrical engineers, with so many years of experience, could provide unobtrusive and cheap (off-shelf, even) sensors monitoring vital signs, we could network senior housing and offices with hospitals. Our colleagues, civil and mechanical engineers, can design better senior housing. Assisted living units should not cost more than McMansions. Bringing the United States to the forefront of such initiatives will create new businesses and provide many jobs for younger people. Selling new technology for the elderly to other nations will help reduce our own unbearable trade deficit.

But we need real, not just claimed, protection by law, so that we, in turn, can help our entire society. We should stand up for our civil rights, fight discrimination, improve our lot, and support our great country. My fellow Gray Americans, united we win!

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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