When we first entered the schoolyard, we discovered that others can be cruel. Who has never been called a name, snickered at or disparaged? Who can say he or she has never been the subject of gossip or insults? These social discomforts and others are an unfortunate part of life.
It is difficult to bear such disparagement as an individual. Yet many of us also find ourselves disparaged because of the groups to which we belong. To its credit, our society has long fought against typecasting of groups. We dislike when people decide that large groups of humanity all share a specific fault or shortcoming. The bedrock of the United States is that each individual should be judged according to merit, not, as the English used to say, by the “accidents” of birth.
Yet, even as it is less socially acceptable to typecast groups of people, we may ask whether our society is free of prejudice when it applies to older people. Do we have certain concepts of senior persons that are simply not true or fair?
Examples of Preconceived Views of Older Persons
- They are techno-phobic
- They are on multiple medications
- They are bad drivers
- They are low on energy
- Their minds are not sharp
- They can’t learn new tasks
- They have bad health
It is one thing when these kinds of views lurk behind the smile of a young person behind a counter. It is quite another when they reside in the minds of those who are responsible for hiring and firing in the workplace.
Ageism in the Workplace
Liz Ryan, CEO and Founder of Human Workplace, writes in Forbes that age discrimination is a reality in the working world. In addition to anecdotal evidence, Ryan says that the mechanized method of sorting through resumes is age-discriminatory. If a resume has too many pages or the dates of work go back too far, the machine relegates the resume into the “black hole” of obscurity.
Keeping a job into one’s mature years is also an arena where ageism plays. Being terminated at a mature age is so prevalent, even for people in their late forties and fifties, that author and editor Lynne Parramore, of the New Economic Development Dialogue Project, says, “50 is the new 65.”
Parramore notes the increasing number of lawsuits alleging age discrimination in the workplace. She mentions that in 2013, nearly 23,000 people filed age discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, compared to the 17,000 age discrimination complaints filed five years before.
Of course, as in other cases of discrimination, ageism in the workplace is illegal. If a person is 40-years-old or older, his or her work and work applications are protected by law under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA).
Winning age discrimination lawsuits is not easy, however. A Supreme Court ruling in 2009 increased the difficulty of proving age discrimination. The claimant must prove that age was the determining factor in workplace discrimination. Only a few states have less stringent requirements.
Decades of Honorable Service Trashed
Horror stories abound of older, successful and valuable workers being trashed. One high profile case that drew the attention of the New York Times involved Richard L. White, the director of career services at Rutgers University for more than 20 years. White had garnered many accolades for his job performance, several of the most notable ones when he was more than 60 years old.
Then he was fired. When a new, younger man began supervising the career services department, White received his first-ever negative job performance review. Nor was he alone. Other aged workers at Rutgers were given similar treatment. Like White, three others had received rave performance reviews until the younger man took over. Their evaluations suddenly plummeted and they were dismissed.
More troubling was that the older workers underwent harassment before they were summarily dismissed. They launched a lawsuit alleging the harassment and improper dismissal. They alleged that the younger supervisor continually sounded them out as to when they intended to retire and created what White called a “toxic, intimidating, bullying” atmosphere for the older workers.
Once Fired, Considered Expired
It is not easy for an older worker to replace a good job with a comparable one. It is almost impossible to find one with similar pay to what one earned in the middle and later years of one’s career. Once older workers lose their jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, they usually suffer a 20% pay cut at their next job —if they can land one.
Yet people live much longer today and they are stronger and healthier for more decades than ever before. They do not simply go away or die once they are “let go” from jobs at which they still perform well. Many must opt for early retirement and tap into their nest egg to make ends meet. This makes their old age much less secure and potentially burdensome to society.
Ashton Applewhite, a journalist who blogs on ageism, notes that America treated its elderly slaves better than we treat older workers today. She says a slave could command top dollar even after the age of 70 because of his or her highly valued skills and contributions to the work force.
Should we do less for our aging population?
Age discrimination could be headed your way, sooner than you think.Applewhite, Ashton. Pushing back against ageism, which affects everyone. This Chair Rocks, blog, available online at http://www.thischairrocks.com/.
O’Brien, Molly. Employment Discrimination Lawsuit Proceeds against Rutgers’ President’s Chief of Staff. New Brunswick Today, March 9, 2014. Available online athttp://newbrunswicktoday.com/article/employment-discrimination-lawsuit-proceeds-against-rutgers-presidents-chief-staff
Parramore, Lynn. 50 Is the New 65: Older Americans Are Getting Booted from Their Jobs and Denied New Opportunities. Alternet, December 22, 2103. Available online at
Ryan, Liz. “The Ugly Truth about Age Discrimination.” Forbes, January 31, 2014. Available online at http://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2014/01/31/the-ugly-truth-about-age-discrimination/.
Winerip, Michael. Pushed out of a Job Early. New York Times, Dec. 6, 2013. Available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/07/booming/pushed-out-of-a-job-early.html?_r=1.