Do We Really Value Younger and Older Workers? It’s Time to Prove It.

Lessons from My Grandmother


The record high levels of unemployment over the past year have exposed gaps in Minnesota’s unemployment system as it relates to how we treat our oldest and youngest workers. As someone who has spent most of his career in the youth development field, it is truly a privilege to stand with AARP and older workers in this fight for fairness in the administration of unemployment benefits for Minnesota’s youth and older adults.

My passion for this partnership is rooted in my journey as a young worker who grew up very close to my grandmother, who received limited social security benefits as her primary source of income. The largest monthly benefit she ever received was less than $300 per month.

I started working at the age of 13 (at the Science Museum of Minnesota). My proudest moments occurred when I would receive my check, cash it, and give a portion to my grandmother. This feeling was likely not much different from how many young workers felt as they were able to help support their families during the pandemic. I was motivated to give to my grandmother for several reasons.

First, it was instilled in me at a young age that it is critically important to value and respect older adults. In fact, valuing and respecting older adults was a requirement. Still, it was also viewed as a demonstration of strong character. Secondly, I saw the practice modeled. I witnessed adults in my family take responsibility for my grandmother and ensure her needs were met.

And most importantly, I felt compelled to do for her because of all she did for me. I remember vividly being at her house in Mississippi, watching her spend most of the day cooking. She then relegated herself to eating the scraps from her grandchildren's plates to get her nourishment. Rarely was there much food left -- she was a great cook, we were greedy, and everyone seemed to make their way to grandma’s house near supper time.

Although her food was wonderful, the wisdom she shared was the most beneficial. She only had an 8th-grade education because of the hardship, discrimination, and barriers she faced, so her wisdom is especially relevant during these challenging times.

Today, we are at a crossroads. Times have been tough. We are facing adversity. Businesses have weathered hard times, and challenges still exist.

These times are putting our values to the ultimate test. Do we value our older workers who have played a critical role in the prosperity we have enjoyed? Do we truly value our young workers who are concentrated in the industries hardest hit by COVID? Is fairness only an option when times are good or when the cost is not considered too great? These are the questions we are wrestling with now, as we consider the fact that Minnesota is the only state in the nation that penalizes laid-off workers who also receive Social Security benefits. Likewise, Minnesota is one of only a handful of states that prohibits high school workers from collecting unemployment benefits even if they meet all of the standard requirements.

When I encounter tough questions, I think about what my grandmother taught me. I also use her life’s work as an example to determine what I should do. Clearly, she would assert that fairness is not something that you only practice in good times. Instead, fairness is a requirement to produce good times. Her life also demonstrates the importance of investing in the next generation. Her needs were met during her most fragile years of life because of the investments she made in others who ensured she had the life she deserved in her latter years.

Older workers have invested significantly in our ability to weather this pandemic, and Minnesota's youth are poised to chart our path to a sustainable future. We must pass legislation to ensure we do not exclude secondary students and social security recipients from receiving state unemployment benefits. Now is the time to double down in demonstrating the value we place on our youth and our most experienced workers.

Marcus Pope
Vice President of Youthprise

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