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Mike Tyson’s comeback is a counterpunch to age discrimination

Earlier this year, boxing superstar Mike Tyson shared astonishing video clips from one of his recent sparring sessions. At 53, the former multi-year world heavyweight champion appeared as fearsome as ever. The displays of his might went viral.

A couple of months later, Tyson joined talk shows and podcasts to explain his return to training: He is scheduled to appear in an exhibition fight with Roy Jones Jr., 51, also a former champion, on Nov. 28. The match (originally scheduled for Sept. 12) will double as the inaugural event for Tyson’s new venture, the Legends Only League, which is producing the event. “I don’t believe in the fountain of youth, but something just came over me and I’m back,” Tyson told NBC talk-show host Jimmy Fallon.

The Legends Only League would be recruiting other former athletes who may have retired from pro sports, but still “have it.” The league is for “whoever, I don’t care, basketball, pool sharks, all the ex-legends who want to play and are still able to play, and are still beautiful, like myself, they can come with us,” Tyson said, name-checking Wayne Gretzky, Dennis Rodman, Metta World Peace, and Diego Maradona. Tennis, ping pong, and handball players, too, he said—they’re all invited. Just because they’re “old” for their sports, he said, “Why do they have to not do what they do?”

A spokesperson for the Legends Only League told Quartz that the group has not yet announced other future events. Perhaps it will be a flash in the pan. But I’m rooting for its success, if only because of its title. Finally, here’s a phrase that’s appropriately respectful for people working in the second half of life.

The unspoken age cutoffs for professionals are perhaps lowest for athletes and performers, but they exist in nearly every occupation—there are few jobs for which having accumulated time in the ring is seen as an asset. People might respect longtime academics, but often they’re not the ones invited to host podcasts or give Ted Talks. In the tech industry, employees in their late 40s are at risk of being stamped “irrelevant.”

This form of prejudice is insanity, and it threatens everyone who intends to keep “doing what they do” as the years pass. To start changing mindsets, we need more formulations like Legends Only to knock out the more cringeworthy terms for older folks. “Silver sneakers,” the “silver tsunami,” “mature” or “seasoned” professionals—none of it sounds nearly as dignified as being described as a legend.

Ageism in the workplace is about to get worse

Just before Covid-19, a tight labor market created favorable conditions for older hires, who were suddenly recognized as valuable. That dovetailed nicely with a trend toward working well past the traditional age for retirement.

But the economic fallout from the pandemic may allow ageism to flourish. Already, workers over 65 represented a larger portion of people laid off in the US in April and May, which is unlike previous recessions, in which having seniority at work protected them. Meanwhile, data from past recessions show that older employees (those over age 50, in the data we looked at) who do become unemployed in a crisis will be looking for a new position for longer than younger job hunters.

For companies and governments, managing the post-pandemic recovery should mean designing benefits to support job seekers who might be closer to a retirement age and financially insecure, and promoting a diversity of age groups within firms. In some ways that starts with language: When companies start hiring again as the economy recovers, job ads looking for “digital natives” or “recent grads” ought to be seen as red flags.

Sure, “legends only” is hardly an inclusive term, but it’s the spirit of Tyson’s counterpunch that’s worth emulating.

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