Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Gray Ceiling

A commenter to yesterday's post alerted me to this article about “the gray ceiling.” It's a newish term used to describe workplaces in which the promotion and/or employment prospects of Gen X'ers are stymied by a huge cohort of Boomers (and pre-Boomers) who just won't leave.

It's a nice piece. It makes the cogent point that, unlike other glass ceilings, the gray ceiling is particularly immune to legislative or judicial remedy. If a reasonably large company promotes only men or only whites, it will have a hard time defending itself against a discrimination claim. On the other hand, if it never puts anybody under 50 in a position of real responsibility,the courts wouldn't even recognize a claim.

Under federal law, age discrimination is actionable only when it hurts the old. When it hurts the young (say, through excessive and/or specious requirements for experience), it's hunky-dory. Hiring for diversity in race or gender is smiled-upon; hiring for diversity in age is actionable.*

I saw this firsthand last year, when I served on (but didn't chair) a search committee for a very senior position. The chair of the committee, one of my very favorite people here, drew up a template for awarding points to the c.v.'s we received, so we could decide which candidates to invite to campus for interviews. So far, so good. The job posting listed a few requirements and several preferences, so we had a pretty good idea of what criteria to use for the first cut.

The eye-opener for me was how the 'experience' category was coded. Experience at the desired level was valued linearly, so the five years between 15 and 20 counted for as much as the first five years. (The template itself has been relegated to the back files, so I'm working from memory.)

To my mind, this is blatant age discrimination. I'm willing to concede that the first few years of experience at a given level count for something; certainly I made some judgment calls in my first year of deaning that I wouldn't make now. But it strains belief to say that the marginal gain in proficiency at a job from year 11 to year 15 is as dramatic as the gain from year 1 to year 5. After a certain point, I'd wager, people have pretty much learned what they're going to learn at a given position. After that, they're mostly repeating themselves. I'll take it farther. There's a point somewhere along the line – I won't venture to say where – at which performance probably actually starts to drop. Not to the same degree for everybody, and probably not always at the same point, but it's there. We all have blind spots. As those blind spots get ignored for longer and longer, nasty stuff can fester in them. The occasional change at least changes the blind spots, so stuff long-ignored can be addressed, and the stuff newly ignored will probably be able to coast on capital for at least a little while.

The thirty-something hotshots in the article, by and large, got around the gray ceiling by leaving their companies and starting new ones. In much of the private sector, that's an option. Not so much for academia. As much as I'd enjoy setting up Dean Dad University, and running it according to my twisted ideology and devilish whims, it ain't gonna happen. (There's a movie coming out about a bunch of 18 year olds who set up their own college, so they can spend their parents' money on beer for four years. Because certainly no such thing ever happens at established colleges.) The barriers to entry are astonishing, and the price competition with the public sector suicidal. Absent the support of some major sponsor (a religious denomination, the government, or profit-seeking investors), I just don't see it.**

(The other great exception for academia is tenure. Lifetime tenure, combined with no mandatory retirement, is a recipe for a gray ceiling. I've written on that before, so all I'll say is that a reasonable proposal might be to have tenure expire at 70. People can still be full-time faculty after 70, but only if they win a fair fight for the job. If that strikes you as unreasonable, ask yourself why.)

I can see the appeal of requiring excessive amounts of experience. It's easily quantified, it's measurable, there's a presumption of relevance, and nobody ever got in trouble for doing it. Since the class most hurt by it lacks the legal standing to argue a case, there's a certain “no harm, no foul” appeal. But that still doesn't make it right.

*The exception to this is when the gray ceiling also happens to coincide with disallowed versions of discrimination. You have to pick the right kinds of bias.

** I am open to being proved wrong on this. Messrs. Gates and Buffett are welcome to contact me with offers of pornographic amounts of money. I'll be happy to name buildings after them. Perhaps the Bill Gates entomology lab, in honor of all those Microsoft bugs? The Gates and Buffett memorial center for Anti-Trust Studies?