Age Discrimination: It’s a Question of Time

Starbucks InitiativeIt can be difficult for workers who are starting out or who are in the midst of an exciting career to think ahead.

It is a bummer to contemplate the certain prospect that the merry-go-round will some day stop.

Fear of and distaste for aging are among the reasons that society collectively ignores age discrimination in employment in the United States. Moreover, victims of age discrimination often find themselves in the undesirable position of competing with victims of other types of discrimination for attention and scarce resources.

Age discrimination is blatant but invisible. Many states, for example, require judges to retire at age 70, even if they are perfectly capable and fit. The thinking goes that forcing these mostly white judges to retire encourages diversity by making room for African-Americans and Hispanics, who are underrepresented in the judiciary. But judges don’t live forever and the judiciary inevitably will become more diverse without age discrimination. Meanwhile, there are many non-discriminatory ways of getting rid of incompetent employees, including judges.

The kind of short-sighted thinking way that encourages age discrimination discounts the tremendous down-side of the problem.

Age discrimination dehumanizes individuals by assigning them group traits that often are negative and unfounded.

Age discrimination denies older workers their individuality and personhood (not to mention their right to work).

A society that countenances any type of irrational employment discrimination undermines the foundational American principles of equality and equal justice under the law. You can’t just be equal when you’re young and cool. If you’re not equal when you are older too, then the equality that you thought you had was illusory. There is and can be no justification for exempting one disfavored group — older workers — from societal protections against employment discrimination.

The extent of the problem of age discrimination in employment today can be seen by its overt nature. Employers advertise for “digital natives” or “recent graduates,” which are code terms for workers under the age of 40.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has given its blessing to the so-called 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, in which many of America’s leading corporations plan to provide jobs to disadvantaged “youth” aged 16 to 24. The 100,000 Opportunities Initiative violates the plain language of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which unambiguously prohibits employers from using age as a factor in hiring.

 Starbucks, a corporate leader of the coalition, and U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, who endorsed the initiative, have failed to provide any legal justification for a hiring program that on its face violates the ADEA. Meanwhile, the media and the AARP have ignored this blatant example of government-backed age discrimination by America’s top corporations.

In passing the ADEA, Congress made the decision 50 years ago to protect older workers from employment discrimination. Since then, the federal government has addressed youth unemployment through educational and training programs. The Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions, which describes itself as an “intermediary” for the initiative, states in press release that the “the Opportunity Initiative does not prevent opportunities for older workers. Its purpose is to open up new opportunities that currently do not exist for some youth.”  But the facts speak for themselves. Jobs will be designated for workers in a specific age group. Workers aged 25 and over are expressly excluded from applying for these jobs. That’s age discrimination under the ADEA.

No one disagrees that jobless and disadvantaged young people need help but so do older workers. A recent AARP survey showed that half of the people ages 45 to 70 who experienced unemployment during the past five years are not currently working,. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, did a study in 2013 that documents alarming economic insecurity among older Americans. Nearly half (48.0 percent) of America’s 41 million seniors are “economically vulnerable,” defined as having an income that is less than two times the supplemental poverty threshold (a poverty line more comprehensive than the traditional federal poverty line).

Younger workers undoubtedly will reap short-term benefits as a result of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative but I submit they will be losers in the end unless society takes a hard-line on age discrimination in employment. The merry-go-round stops for everyone. We are all, in the end, diminished by age discrimination.

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