Ageism was spotted in 1866 and it is seen today with multiple stereotypes and prejudice of the elderly and it is especially observed in the workplace. Our aged population with limited income, yet bearers of a number of bills, including rising cost in utilities, medical care, and medications are faced with the stress and suffering of age discrimination in the workforce. This paper will review the history of age discrimination and discuss cases in which employees favor the young and terminate the old.
Ageism is a growing problem and concern and has become a negative societal workplace trend for older adults. Although ageism is “defined as discrimination against any age group,” (Farney, Aday & Breault, 2006, p. 215) it most often refers to age discrimination among adults over 55. As quoted in “Ageism in the Workplace,” ageism is defined as “the systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against older people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplished this with skin color and gender” (qtd. in Dennis & Thomas, 2007, p.84). Discrimination may be defined as “the actions arising from institutions and individuals that disproportionately and systematically harm members of socially marginalized groups” (qtd. in Gee, Pavalko & Long, 2007, p.265). William Graebner, an early researcher of age discrimination, studied help-wanted ads in newspapers dated from 1895-1935 and defined age discrimination as “any reference which clearly implied a preference for youthful workers, such as ‘girl,’ ‘boy,’ ‘young woman,’ and so on” (Segrave, 2001, p. 6). With pertinent terms defined, we may further address age discrimination in the workplace and the harmful effect it has on society, the individual, and our economy. It is a subject that needs to be addressed, as contrary to some beliefs, age discrimination does exist, acting like a disease that continues to grow and an increased level of awareness needs to be accomplished in the U.S. today – the problem has existed for too long amidst ignorance and needs addressing in legal and practical terms.
Age discrimination of the older population is not new, it is a long-time ill-effect found in the workplace. In 1866, “witnesses testified before a special Massachusetts commission that woodcarvers and cabinet workers were economically old after the age of 40” (Segrave, 2001, p. 4). In 1900 the Labor Statistics Bureau appeared in front of the Industrial Commission and “pleaded for the man ‘whose hair is gray but who is physically a strong man and looks to be in the prime of life’” (Segrave, 2001, p. 4). During the panic of 1908, many older workers lost their jobs, with one manager explicitly, making a statement of “One good thing the panic did for us, it gave us an opportunity to get rid of all our old men. No dead wood here. Every man is under thirty five” (Segrave, 2001, p. 11). Yet, one businessman saw the greatness in the older employee, paying regular wages and advertising for workers of age 45 and older. He said, “I never had a better office force in my life, and from the first things went smoothly. There was no breaking in of green men; no carelessness; no idleness; no unruliness.” There definitely were signs of age discrimination in the first quarter of the 20th century and before, with the prejudice of older workers becoming a societal debate, with only a very few advocating for the older worker. It is since this time that ageism has become a defining problem in workplaces across the world – a problem which could affect anyone as they grow older.
Men and women begging for jobs or submitting to menial jobs have suffered from depression, loneliness and belittlement, not only today, but in the early years, also. An advocate for these older workers Clement Schwinges formed a group called Cooperative Action Membership Corporation, in 1927. With little money to work with, CAMD failed to progress and Schwinges’ expressed his disappointment and sorrow. He stated, “It will be forever the saddest memory of my life that I was unable to prevent several suicides, by some of those present at the first meetings, when they were disappointed in their last hope of getting a decent job soon.” How did society fail these people who felt so worthless that they took their own lives?
Almost thirty years later, age discrimination was still a topic of concern, still yet a large problem for our nation. This unanswered crisis posed financial concern for the states in welfare costs and unemployment payments. One of the first questions of an employer was “How old are you?” In 1955 President Eisenhower gave a Labor Day speech telling the people, “We cannot afford to squander our manpower through a prejudice which obscures the values of maturity, responsibility and constancy found in older workers” (qtd. in Segrave, 2001, p. 85). A 1959 report showed that in San Francisco, “seven of ten firms would not hire a man or woman of 50 or over; in the Southwest conditions were worse. In New York City 75 percent of companies would not hire a man at 55, while 80 percent barred a woman of 55” (Segrave, 2001, p. 86). It was known that approximately 400,000 New Yorkers were out of work and the New York Welfare Commissioner Hilliard found the number of “public assistance caseloads rising,” as older workers exhausted their unemployment insurance benefits. Those age 45 and over were forced to turn to the Welfare department for assistance. Hilliard spoke to employers and told them, “If business men would like to see a reduction of the public assistance tax burden, they must not discriminate either against the older worker or the qualified relief recipient” (qtd. in Segrave, 2001, p. 92). In July 1950, 50.1 percent of the New York people on welfare were over 40 and in April 1951, 66.6 percent of the population on welfare were over 40 (Segrave, 2001, p. 97). We can learn from these statistics today, as discriminating the aged and keeping them out of the workforce causes state costs in welfare and unemployment wages.
In the 1960’s states were beginning to enact state laws against age discrimination, a formal acknowledgement of ageism in the workplace. Yet, stereotyping of older workers still surfaced, with middle-aged citizens accused with being less productive and more costly than younger workers, even though studies showed differently. Finally, the federal government stepped in, enacting the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. In Jaunary1967, President Johnson spoke to the nation: “Hundreds of thousands, not yet old, not yet voluntarily retired, find themselves jobless because of arbitrary age discrimination. Despite our present low rate of unemployment, there has been a persistent average of 850,000 people age 45 and over who are unemployed. Today more than three-quarters of the billion dollars in unemployment insurance is paid each year to workers who are 45 and over. They comprise 27 percent of all the unemployed, and 40 percent of the long-term unemployed” (qtd. in Segrave , 2001, p. 141.) Again, the nation as a whole was suffering with the high cost of unemployment insurance and the loss of the experience, knowledge and productivity of the older worker.
The fear of employing older workers stems from the idea that the stereotypical image of an elderly person as being slower, less competent and generally unable to cope with modern techniques and methods. However, this is simply unfair as the vast majority of the statistics stated here, demonstrate how in practice, people who are being age-discriminated against are frequently as young as their early fifties or even their forties – ages which simply cannot be classified as being elderly. In fact, it is the idea of ‘youth’ which has allowed this issue to spin out of control – in their discussion of this, Paul and Townsend state “Our preoccupation with youthfulness has tended to undermine the importance and wealth of experience offered by our senior members” (Colella & Dipboye, 2005, p. 205) and this is correct – society is fascinated with the idea of youthfulness and as a result, we have entirely forgotten about the experience and knowledge that an older mind can bring to the task. Whilst it may be prudent to assess the capabilities of an elderly employee in order to best meet their needs, it is entirely unacceptable to fail to employ a person based solely on their age – particularly if that age is not an elderly figure: the older worker brings a calmer, more level-headed approach to problem solving. Equally, it has been discussed that elderly employees may struggle much more than their youthful counterparts to find work whilst having a significantly higher level of fiscal responsibility (Colella & Dipboye, 2005, p. 205) indicating a paradoxical situation that is neither fair to older employees nor a correctly placed demographic focus.
Another key reason why a lot of employers seem un-keen to employ the elderly or even the older worker is because of their likelihood of retiring or leaving work because of health reasons. This was an even more prevalent issue whilst mandatory retirement was enforced during the Twentieth Century: upon reaching the age of 65, workers were forced to retire meaning that they were deemed ‘unable’ to perform sufficiently in the workplace. Despite its abolition in 1986, this idea has hung around the older worker like a bad smell and many still hold that age in their minds as being an age where an individual can or cannot complete their work to an optimum performance level despite a study carried about by Joseph Quinn at Boston College which concluded that, “this move ‘sent an important message to society that the appropriate age to retire was not necessarily 65’” (Yoffe, 2011). However, this is not the case as repeatedly, the ‘retirement age’ (enforced or otherwise) hangs around the necks of older workers who will be passed up for promotion in favour of the younger worker who will potentially carry out the role for a longer time: “The younger worker has only her youth to recommend her, but that will probe more than sufficient. She will be awarded the promotion whilst the older woman will remain in her present position. A year later the older worker may be downsized or forced into retirement on some pretext.” (Gregory, 2001, p. 6). So, once again, the older worker is faced with a paradox where they are either encouraged to retire or stay in a job where they are clearly under-valued despite their evident experience and willingness to work. The removal of the mandatory retirement age should have eliminated the idea of people retiring at 65 but instead, it’s just become an expectation anyway and older workers are treated as such despite their desire to continue working. Employers who do not promote individuals because they are ‘near the retirement age’ are discriminating in the fullest sense of the word since there is no longer a specific retirement age and workers can work for as long as they choose to. It is no longer a valid excuse because the limits have been removed.
With the enactment of ADEA, companies are not going to blatantly disobey the law, but will find other reasons and excuses to not hire someone because of an applicant’s age, making it more difficult to prove age discrimination. Michael C. Harper, a professor at Boston University School of Law agrees, saying that ‘the smoking guns’ needed to prove deliberate age discrimination are generally hard to find” (Alster, 2005, par. 7). Socialists Rothenberg and Gardner believe that the ADEA of 1967 has been ineffective in protecting older workers from age discrimination. “The Act is intended ‘to outlaw only unreasonable or arbitrary discrimination; federal courts have tended to take the view that age discrimination in employment is justified if there is any rational basis for it,’” as quoted in Rothenber and Gardner (p.18). They state that “between June 2008 and June 2009, the unemployment rate for adults 55 and over increased by 106% compared to a 70% increase for the population at large. From a labor perspective, discrimination based on age…only serves to weaken the the ongoing campaign to advance social and economic justice.”
However, it seems prudent to discuss the idea of age discrimination in terms of the younger person too. Many claim that age discrimination is something which happens solely to the elderly and for the most part, they are right but age is something which applies to everyone whether they are one year old, thirty-one years old or seventy-five and young-discrimination (which generally applies to people aged sixteen to twenty-four) is a problem too (Sargeant, 2006, p. 79). The discrimination that young people will experience is frequently quite different from that experienced by older workers and will usually be critical of their lack of experience. However, a direct comparison between why individuals left their last job still indicates that 36% of the 16-19 age group in a study left their last job through resignation compared with only 8% from the people who were in their 50s – demonstrating that despite some younger age discrimination, the younger worker is still confident in being able to find another job successfully whereas the statistics clearly show that those in the 50s were significantly less confident in this matter (Sargeant, 2006, p. 80). So, whilst some may argue that age discrimination happens across the board, it is clear that whilst this is the case, it is more the case that the older worker is targeted for such beliefs more so than the younger at any rate. It is clear from these statistics that the younger worker can confidently leave a job in the knowledge that they will find another job whereas the elder worker is not. An older worker who is forced into a situation where they must retire is then significantly less likely to find work again and remain retired – this, presumably, would be the same for older workers who choose to resign from their position. The stigma attached to being an older worker means that, for the most part, individuals will struggle to find work under any circumstances and even with a faultless professional record.
Although, age discrimination still prevails, the enactment of the ADEA has generated publicity and charges have been made. In 2010 middle-aged and older television writers were found to be victims of age discrimination with a 70 million dollar settlement made (Verrier, 2010). Ford, Goodyear, and Capital One all have two things in common, they all use the forced ranking system in ranking employees in performance and they all have been sued for employment age discrimination, accused of violating the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Older workers were ranked in the lowest category consistently and at a questionably high rate. A former Best Buy employee Hugh Juergens says he was released from his duties in October of 2003. It came as a surprise, as Juergens received a performance rating review in 2002 of 4.1 out of 5, which “exceeds expectations,” according to Best Buy management. His review also read, “Hugh is an exemplary associate who goes beyond what is expected of his role” (Alster, 2005, p. 2, par. 14). Why was he fired? A company letter stated the reason as, “Your employment was terminated due to your failure to meet the expectations of your position” (Alster, 2005, par. 14). In response to the use of performance ranking systems, Megan Bonnai, a lawyer representing employees, says, “ It’s an invitation for discrimination. It’s designed to rid the company of older workers.
Ursel and Armstrong-Stassen (2006) have informed us that , “average verdicts in age discrimination lawsuits are 200-500 percent higher than those for sex, race, or disability discrimination, and age discrimination complaints are the fastest growing category of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission” (p. 89). It was found in one study that “workers (skilled and semi-skilled) in the manufacturing and construction industries were most often subject to age discrimination,” with termination used in 66% of cases (Santora & Seaton, 2008, p. 103). Age discrimination also evolves in the forms of harassment and exclusion from hiring (Santora & Seaton, 2008, p. 104). In 2008, an overwhelming 24,500 cases of age discrimination were reported, telling us that negative societal stereotypes are still prevailing (Rothenberg & Gardner, 2011, p. 10). As Dennis and Thomas (2007) state, “when age biases negatively affect workplace decisions about employment, retirement, benefits, and training and promotion opportunities, age discrimination is in action” (p.84).
Older adults today are postponing retirement because of the need to work for financial reasons. Statistics from an American Association of Retired Persons survey of 767 adults age 45 and over, show that “22% of respondents aged 45-54 and 27% aged 55-64 have postponed plans to retire” (Rothenberg & Gardner, 2011, p 9). Due to the current economic recession, older individuals find the need to continue to work even under an umbrella of age discrimination. The stress and suffering that older workers experience in the worry of financial troubles and in finding a job is real. Researchers consider that “discrimination is among the most important of all the stressful experiences that have been implicated as causes of mental health problems” (qtd. in Gee et al, 2007, p. 267) and increased risk of depression (Geet et al, 2007, p. 273). Addressing age discrimination is of importance, especially when it is playing a role in the ill-health of our aged workers.
In 1905 Doctor William Osler said “Take the sum of human achievement in action, in science, in art, in literature; subtract the work of men above 40, and while we should miss great treasures, even priceless treasures, we would practically be where we are today.” Did he forget Dante who wrote Divine Comedy and Milton who wrote Paradise Lost, both who were beyond the age of 50 when they created their greatest works? Thomas Edison was 46 when he invented the incandescent light bulb and 83 when he obtained his last patent. Without the inventions of Edison, life as it is today is almost unimaginable. We cannot adhere to Osler’s 1905 wrongful and absurd thoughts today or our future will be stunted.
Discussion of ageism and the value of the elderly population most certainly should be a part of college and high school classes and courses. Recent research has shown that young adults’ impressions and attitudes toward the elderly is powerfully negative. One particular study found results showing that “college students had less interest in a recorded passage when it was read by an elderly adult as opposed to a young adult” (Farney et al., 2006, p. 216). It also was found that “among the college students sampled, negative feelings about older adults increased with age—the older the adult the more negative the sentiment” (Farney et al., 2006). Our younger generation meet our older generation with negativity and when surveyed confirmed their preference of “service providers who are realistically young” (doctor, lawyer, college professor, restaurant cook, TV anchorperson, and United States president) (Farney et al, 2006). Students and future health care workers, business managers, and all service providers should be aware of the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 and develop a commitment to treat all elderly members of our society with fairness and equality. Research study has revealed that “young adults can be educated about the realities of aging, and that education increases positive attitudes toward the aging process and the elderly” (tad. in Farney, Aday & Breault, 2006, p. 223).
Recognition and celebration of our mature population in the workforce, volunteer organizations, demonstration of special talents, and their accomplishments and contributions to society should be honored and made aware to the public, adding support and respect for the older members of our communities. This will enable all, young and old, to recognize the value of our older population and to dismiss stereotyping and ageism myths. In truth, the younger members of society cannot learn if they are not educated by the older, wiser members – by eliminating this latter group from employment opportunities, we are essentially heading towards a society which is run by young people and will, consequently, continue to repeat its mistakes over and over. The older members of society, far from being prejudiced against, should be valued and used as a way of educating new generations of workers and, from a young age, individuals should be made aware of the value of the elderly. Society, as a whole, must dismiss the stereotypes which have the older worker shackled to a misjudged idea of being slower, weaker, less productive and instead, should nurture the idea of their being wiser, calmer and generally more reliable too.
Age discrimination is an oppression that affects all members of society in many ways and is a problem that we will all face, if we live long enough, and therefore all members of our nation will want to continue to work to dismiss and fight this unfairness of age discrimination and bigotry. With less government money to fund programs of Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment and with limited retirement plans and pensions, older citizens need to work. Eliminating ageism will help the economy, enable our elder citizens to live with the dignity and respect that they deserve, rid of stereotypes and bias and will protect our future. The Betty Whites of the world will continue to fight ageism with determination and belief, and as she has proved, one can have a career for over 60 years and keep going at the age of 89, if one chooses to do so.
Alster, N. (2005). When gray heads, roll, is age bias at work? New York Times, 3.
Colella, A. & Dipboye, R.L. (2005). Discrimination at work: the psychological and organizational bases. New Jersey: Lawrence Erbaum Associates.
Dennis H. & Thomas, K. (2007). Ageism in the workplace. Generations, 84-89.
Farney, L., Aday, R. & Breault, K. (2006). Age preferences: How old is “Too Old” for selected service providers among young, middle-aged, and older adults? Educational Gerontology, 32, 215-224.
Gee, G., Pavalko, E. & Long, J. (2007). Age, cohort and perceived age discrimination: Using the life course to assess self-reported age discrimination. Social Forces, 86, 265-290.
Gregory, R.F. (2001). Age discrimination in the American workplace: old at a young age. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Osborne, T. & McCann, L.A. (2004). Forced ranking and age-related employment discrimination. Human Rights, 31 (2), 6-10.
Rothenberg, J. & Gardner, D.S. (2011). Protecting older workers: The failure of the age discrimination in employment act of 1967. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 38 (1),
Santora, J.Z. & Seaton, W. (2008). Age discrimination: Alive and well in the workplace? Academy of Management Perspectives, 103-104.
Sargeant, M. (2006). Age Discrimination in Employment. London: Gower Publishing.
Segrave, K. (2001). Age Discrimination by Employees. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Ursel, N. & Armstong-Stassen, M. (2006). How age discrimination in employment affects stockholders. Journal of Labor Research, 27, 89-99.
Verrier, R. (2010, Jan. 23). Writers’ age case settled. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from SIRS Knowledge Source.
Yoffe, E. (2011, April 14). Please Take the Gold Watch. Please! Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/id/2291194/