Age discrimination – most Americans have heard the term, but how many truly understand the causes, implications, and tremendous impact it has on the American economy? Despite passage of The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age (EEOC 1), discrimination continues. We must understand why it exists in the first place, what the benefits of hiring and retaining experienced workers are, what the current status of the 40-and-over workforce is, and what should be done to prepare for the future.
The median age of the American worker is somewhere around 40, and is expected to reach 41 by the year 2005. The number of workers age 55 and older is anticipated to pass 22 million by that time (Steinhauser "Diversity" 1). So why is our society so youth oriented? The answer lies in a simple, five-letter word – the media. The media — be it via television and cable, movies, or magazines — loves youth, and deifies trim, fit and extremely youthful models at every opportunity because that is what sells movies, shows, and magazines.
Older persons in sit-coms are generally portrayed as foolish dolts, the butt of jokes and witty barbs tossed about by teenage geniuses who run circles around their poor, idiotic elders. The media generally does not present aging persons in a kind light, and Americans are immersed in media. The multi-billion-dollar industries of diet products, fitness centers, tapes, books, and equipment, all guaranteed to make us look younger, flourish unabated. The medical community can barely keep pace with tummy tucks, facelifts, hair implants, and Botox injections. There is nothing wrong with being fit and looking youthful.
However, ours is a society that dreams of and longs for the eternal fountain of youth, a magic pill to keep looking and feeling 30 and that will cure us of the curse of aging. But we have often lost sight of the wisdom that age brings. As Sheldon Steinhauser, Associate Professor of Sociology at The Metropolitan College of Denver and President of a diversity consulting firm puts it, "It seems ironic that age discrimination lawsuits are expected to grow even as life expectancy and definitions of age change dramatically and as companies become increasingly dependent on older workers ("Lawsuits" 1).
" America's population is growing older. In fact, the number of people between 50 and 65 will increase at more than twice the rate of the overall population (Steinhauser "Lawsuits" 1) – yet we live in a world that worships youth. Again, we can attribute this to the successful campaigning of a youth-oriented media. Where wisdom and age once earned a person honor and respect, too often older people are viewed as "over the hill," or "too old to waste time teaching," or even "too unwilling to learn new things.
" These are stereotypical viewpoints, and like most stereotypes, often terribly inaccurate. Although age discrimination can be obvious, such as when a pretty young woman is hired over an older, much more experienced and qualified woman. However, much more subtle discrimination takes place every day, and is often less easy to prove, yet is causes enormous damage to the soul of America and its economy. Take, for example, the executive who is moved to a smaller office when he passes 60, or the 50-year-old manager who knows he will not be promoted no matter how hard he works.
Then there is the vacancy filled by a youthful staff member before older workers are even aware of it, and the new boss who makes life so miserable for the 60-year-old secretary he inherits that she quits (EEOC 1). Such circumstances are not always taken on the cheek, so to speak. Reports by The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission indicate that age follows only race, sex, and disability as the most common complaint filed, with about 20 percent of all charges.
Settlements and jury awards in such cases are substantially higher than those awarded for other types of discrimination cases. Awards averaged $217,000 between 1985 and 1995 (Steinhauser "Lawsuits" 1). Older workers tend to earn higher salaries than younger workers due to time on the job. As unabated downsizing throughout American continues, their jobs look particularly enticing when the ax is raised to chop dollars.
This is extremely unfortunate, for there is a tremendous value of experience residing in the minds of older workers that cannot be replaced by any amount of youthful exuberance or Master's degrees. The personnel directors and company executives interviewed by The American Association of Retired Persons rated older workers very highly, but they also believed the younger managers "do not really want older employees no matter how good their skills, 'so what's the point of sending them an older worker to interview?
What is the point? First of all, the pool of workers, as previously mentioned, is aging, and that trend will only escalate as time goes by. The potential for companies to be sued over age discrimination is growing at a steady and dramatic rate. Based on statistics compiled by the Administration on Aging, the 65 and older population numbered 20 million in 1970, about 35 million in 2000, and will pass 70 million by the year 2030 (AOA "Older" 1).