Age Discrimination

Age Discrimination


Ageism is prejudice or discrimination against older persons because of their age (Palmore, 1998). The following is Elizabeth Vierck's description of ageism (Vierck, 1988):

Ageism is manifested in our society's worship of youth and its anxiety over wrinkles, in the contradictions of our desire for longevity and reluctance to grow old, and in the media's use of phrases like "Geritol jock" (an aging athlete) and "blue hair" concerts ( those attended by older women). Ageism can occur at any age. When Eddie Mannix, an old time executive at Warner Brothers, saw a screen test of 34-year-old Fred Astaire, he said: "He's tood old and too bald." (For  those of you who are too young to remember Fred Astaire, he was a big star from the 1930s through 1981, when he made his last film. He received an honorary Academy Award in 1950, many Emmy Awards for television, a Kennedy Center Honors aware in 1978, the first year they were awarded, and numerous other honors.) Many people fall victim to ageism by, in older age, becoming prejudiced against themselves. A rerun of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" reminds us of this when a delightful,  white-haired older man explains to perky, youthful Mary that part of his daily routing is going to the park and sitting on  the bench. He finds it rather boring, he says, but ever since he was little he has seen old men sitting on benches and feels it is his obligation to the younger generation to do the same.

The moral of the story is clear: Ageism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. A child learns to expect old men to take to benches and, faithfully, in older ages, sits out the expectation. 

The Institutionalization of Ageism

Recent results of groundbreaking study conducted at Yale University Medical School demonstrate the effect that the negative stereotypes of aging have on older people (Levy, Wei, & Hausdorff, 2000).

The study included 54 participants between the ages of 62 and 82, who performed tasks such as recalling the most stressful event in the last five years. Participants were divided into two group, one that was exposed to positive stereotypes of aging (words such as wisdom and creative) and one that was exposed to negative stereotypes (words like senile and dying).

After such exposure, the positive-stereotype group showed a significant decrease in two cardiovascular measures: systolic and diastolic blood pressure. In contrast, participants in the negative-stereotype group showed a significant increase in these measures, even before they performed the stressful tasks.

Negative stereotypes of aging are found in many aspects of our culture," Levy writes. "From casual conversation to television advertisements that often present the elderly either as close to childhood or close to death..." The study suggests that negative stereotypes of aging may contribute to health problems in the elderly without their awareness. This, in turn, could lead to older individuals mistakenly attributing decline in their health to the inevitability of aging, which might then reinforce the negative stereotypes and prevent successful aging.

The study also found that the elderly participants who were exposed to positive aging stereotypes demonstrated significantly higher self-confidence and higher mathematical performance than those exposed to the negative aging self-stereotypes.

This his how Thomas R. Cole described this century's lack of progress against ageism in the history of aging, the Journey of Life (1992): "In our century vastly improved medical and economic conditions for older people have been accompanied by cultural disenfranchisement-a loss of meaning and vital social roles."

Cole was describing the institutionalization or establishment of retirement policies. According to Robert Atchley (2004), "The enormous prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was used to fund retirement, but underlying this policy decision was a belief that older workers couldn't cut it. The institutionalization of retirement let us have the illusion that retirement did no harm."

Atchley continues, "Although most retirees see retirement as a positive change, it is still an action based in ageism and the needs of a wage economy to control the number of people seeking employment. To our credit, we have created networks of volunteer opportunities. But do those opportunities take full advantage of the wisdom and skill that elders bring? Not usually. Why not? Ageism" (Atchley, 2004).

Prejudice and Discrimination

There are two types of ageism: prejudice and discrimination.

Prejudiceinvolves behaviors, specifically those behaviors that restrict, impair, exploit, humiliate, or otherwise hurt seniors (Palmore, 1998).

The most common type of ageism is the stereotype that most old people are sick, senile, sexually impotent, ugly, isolated, poor and miserable (Palmore, 1998). Erman Palmore writes, "In fact, research has shown that none of these stereotypes applies to the vast majority of people over 65. The most common types of discrimination are in employment, training, some government agencies, some families, housing, and health care."

Ageism today is sometimes expressed as "intergenerational warfare," with objections to the proportion of the federal budget that goes to pay for programs benefiting seniors, such as Social Security and Medicare. Some critics believe that these programs are funded at the expense of programs for younger people.

  Ageism's Self-Sabotage Checklist   

Often people behave, think and feel, according to the feedback they get from society. Columnist Ellen Goodman puts it this way: "At age 2 we are required to be terrible, at 6 to go to school, and by 65 or 70 at the latest to be old" (as reported in Vierck, 1988).

You can use the following checklist to examine whether you are ageist toward yourself.

  • Do you avoid doing things you'd like to do because you are afraid your age might make you feel out of place?
  • Do you find yourself thinking things like, I can't do that (start a new career, go dancing, take a vacation) because I'm too old?
  • Do you feel that it is inevitable that negative and extreme age-related changes will happen to you?  Do you feel that there is nothing that you can do about these changes?
  • Do you equate looking old with looking bad?
  • Do you pretend to others or yourself that you are younger than you are?
  • Do you find yourself feeling ashamed of physical signs of aging such as age spots and wrinkles?
  • Do you find yourself avoiding the elderly or frail people in your life?
  • Do you find yourself not wanting to think about older people because of your own fears (particularly if they are in places that make you uncomfortable,such as nursing homes or hospitals)?
  • Do you feel that on issues such as employment or leadership you have few choices because of your age?
  • When you hear that someone that you are about to meet is over 75 do you assume that they're "over the hill"?

 Age Discrimination in Employment

One of the most frequently recognized forms of age discrimination is in employment. Workers should be hired for jobs, and maintain them, because of their job performance and not their age. AARP suggests the following types of events are indicative of age discrimination (AARP, n.d.):

  • An employer wants a younger-looking person to do a job, so the older worker is not hired.
  • A boss won't let an older worker take a training course. Then he or she gets a poor job evaluation because of lack of flexibility in taking on new assignments.
  • Money is tight, so a boss fired the older worker and keeps the younger worker, who is paid less.
  • An employer gives the older worker undeserved poor performance evaluations and then uses his record of poor performance to justify firing or demoting him.
  • A boss turns down an older worker for promotion. Instead, he hires someone younger from the outside because the company says it needs new blood.

Age discrimination is illegal under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). With some exceptions, the law covers job applicants and workers who are 40 and older. The law is overseen by the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

However, the truth is that the EEOC pursues only a tiny percentage of cases brought to them. In addition, employers have the resources to bury private suits against them. The result is that, at this time, the ADEA, under EEOC's enforcement, does not give as much protection as its mandate suggests. However, it is sometimes used effectively by employees older than 40 to settle age discrimination cases out of court.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age. The ADEA's protections apply to both employees and job applicants. Under the ADEA, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his or her age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment-including, but not limited to, hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. It is also unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on age or for filing an age discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under the ADEA.The ADEA applies to employers with 20 or more employees, including state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations, as well as to the federal government. The Older Worker Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA) amended the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in 1990. It prohibits discrimination with respect to employee benefits on the basis of age and regulates early-retirement incentive programs.In 2003 the EEOC won the biggest age discrimination settlement in American history ( EEOC and Arnett et al. v. CalPERS). They recovered $ 250 million in back pay for 1,700 public safety officers in California. It is the biggest settlement of a single lawsuit in the history of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The case focused attention on the growing problem of discrimination of older workers.One of the officers who brought the complaint was Ron Arnett, who in 1992 fractured a vertebra while on duty. The city told Arnett he would have to retire. He appealed and lost. Arnett applied for disability retirement pay from the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS). (CalPERS is the nation's largest public pension fund. At that time it hadassets of $ 133 billion [Harris, 2003].) CalPERS typically paid members who were injured on the job half of their former salary. But Arnett got only 32 percent of his former pay.CalPERS' rationale for paying Arnett less than half his salary was based on the California Government Code Section 21417. According to the code, CalPERS was allowed to adjust the amount of disability pension below the 50 percent of compensation standard using a formula based on the worker's age at the time of hiring. Arnett joined the police at age 43. As it turned out, one of Arnett's classmates became disabled about the same time as Arnett. That officer, who was 30 at the time he was hired got half his regular pay.

Source: EEOC 2004

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.