“I’m sorry, sir; we are just not hiring right now, and we do not take applications unless we are hiring,” the receptionist says. Alex, a 47 year old former sales manager is frustrated and depressed; he has heard the same story repeatedly at every agency in the general area that he lives. Alex starts to turn away from the receptionist, but changes his mind at the last second. He turns back to the receptionist and says, “I have 28 years of experience in this field, and the past 15 years have been as a manager. When I started working at my last place of employment, the agency was operating at a loss, and when I left, it was thriving. Can I at least leave my resume with the current manager?” The receptionist accepts Alex’s resume and promises to pass it on. Alex thanks her and walks away feeling dejected and hopeless.
Three months of job searching has taken its toll on Alex’s morale, and he wonders if he will ever be able to find a job in which he is qualified. Forty-seven is not old by most standards, but he wonders if his graying hair is making him appear older and if this is having a negative effect on his job hunting. Alex questions whether he is being discriminated against based on his age or because he looks older than his years from the gray streaking his hair. Without a doubt, Alex has witnessed, during his years of employment those who believe the older generation is not as capable of learning new information or as simply incompetent. Alex wonders how he will tell his wife that he still has not found a job, and he worries about how he can continue feeding his family with no money coming in.
On the drive home, Alex questions the decisions he has made that resulted in being unemployed and seemingly unemployable. At this point, Alex does not know with any certainty if his lack of success in finding a job is related to his age or the downturn in the economy, and he wonders if he should die his hair to appear younger. Alex’s fears of being denied employment due to age discrimination are legitimate concerns. Ageism and discrimination based on age are very real and controversial issues faced by today’s society in the United States. The Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) was passed over 40 years ago (in 1967) prohibiting the denial of employment, forced retirement, hours of employment, compensation, or termination of individuals due to the person’s age, and it was meant to encourage the employment of older individuals based on their abilities and invaluable experience (Dennis & Thomas, 2007). However, age discrimination and ageism still permeate American society and the workplace.
According to the Legal Eagle Eye for the Nursing Profession (2007), Scanlon, a registered nurse who worked for Jeanes Hospital for 37 years, maintaining a spotless record during her tenure, was fired at the age of 61 when a nurse’s assistant made a complaint against her for allegedly mistreating a patient. In 2007, the United States District Court of Pennsylvania awarded Scanlon $256,800 for her wrongful termination suit against her former employer (2007). The United States District Court of Pennsylvania upheld the jury verdict, citing that “there was no other rational explanation besides age discrimination” (p. 4) since the hospital had not followed policy by investigating the complaint. Nor did they allow Scanlon a chance to defend herself against the allegations (Legal Eagle Eye for the Nursing Profession, 2007).
Ageism is in a different class of discrimination than are racism and sexism which are both determined at birth. Ageism, on the other hand, is something that everyone, if they live long enough, may find themselves a victim of. Ageism comes in various forms, from personal attitudes to social policies. Employment discrimination, though, is one of the more prevalent and visible areas of ageism. Beginning in the era of the Civil War, the United States went through a population redistribution resulting in what was once a rural agricultural society evolving into an urban industrial society, also known as the Industrial Revolution. (Burchett, Palmore, Branch, & Harris, 2005).
The Industrial Revolution, along with increased life expectancies, gave rise to age discrimination. Older workers faced a double-edged sword: if the work were physically demanding, the older worker was viewed as weaker and incapable compared to their younger counterparts; however, if the work was technical or intellectual in nature, the older worker was thought to be deficient and unable to complete the task. It is often the misconception that older workers prevent younger workers from having the opportunity to advance, creating a reverse discrimination. On the other hand, many employers view older workers as a higher cost investment than younger workers, because older workers tend to make more money, cost more in health care, and may be viewed as less productive: thus some employers view age discrimination as good business sense. (Burchett et al, 2005).
In 1979, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was put in place to enforce the ADEA. If someone feels they have been the victim of age discrimination, a complaint may be filed with the EEOC; an investigation will be performed with the goal of resolution outside the court system. Approximately 90% of law suits based on age discrimination never reach trial. Of the few cases that do, half are dismissed and the remainder are typically settled out of court. The EEOC received 16,585 age-related complaints in 2005: approximately 63% are dismissed, with only 18% seeing some type of resolution. In 2006, the Anti-Ageism Taskforce discovered that age-bias during the hiring process is the most common method of age discrimination; however, only 10% of claims filed with the EEOC in 2004 were hiring-related, suggesting that most instances of hiring-based age discrimination goes unreported. Age discrimination during the hiring process is almost impossible to prove. (Burchett et al, 2005)
A valid complaint must include direct evidence the older worker has experienced age discrimination. Then, the employer is put on the defensive to prove age discrimination never occurred, which usually includes the bona fide occupational qualification of employment (BFOQ): the employer attempts to say the action was due to a business reason and not age related. The burden of proof then returns to the employee. For this reason, even if a legitimate complaint is made, the complaint may never be tried in court. Employers have wizened up about saying anything that could be construed as age discrimination and have become better equipped at providing business reasons for their action that appear to not be age related. Accurate and detailed records must be maintained if the worker has a chance at winning a law suit. (Burchett et al, 2005)
Older persons, young people, the economy, and society all pay the consequences of Ageism. Older persons pay by being rejected, ignored, ostracized, ridiculed, denied employment and promotions, abused, lack of medical care, and conformity to society’s beliefs resulting in the loss of freedoms. Young people pay through the billions of dollars in taxes that go to support positive ageism programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, nutrition services, and senior centers. (Palmore, Branch, & Harris, 2005)
The cost to the economy is impossible to determine; there are costs of positive ageism programs, and the cost of negative ageism, primarily through the loss of productivity caused by forced retirement and denied employment. It is estimated that approximately $60 billion is lost each year from lost productivity. The costs to society, too, are immeasurable: residential segregation, social isolation, disengagement from family and friends, and institutionalization, which also is creating a rise in physical and mental illnesses. The younger generation loses the wisdom imparted by their elders and gains fear of aging and death. That it is difficult to place a monetary value on what is lost does not make the loss any less real. (Palmore et al, 2005)
Some employers are showing forward thinking in combating the problem of ageism in the workplace. Recognition programs, such as that run by AARP Best Employers for Workers over 50 have a national competition to recognize employers who best addresses the issue of discrimination in the workplace. The programs are credited with initiating a nation-wide change in attitude toward the older generation by recognizing the value of “competent older workers.” Diversity trainings which typically include gender, race, and ethnicity are now beginning to address ageism. Many companies are recognizing their older workers as the valuable commodity they are: who better than the most experienced to pass on their knowledge and skills to the younger generation before retiring. To this end, some companies put their retirees back on the payroll as mentors. Yet other employers are extending the mandatory retirement age and offering large bonuses for people who postpone their retirement. (Burchett et al, 2005)
The foundation has been laid, but there remains much work to be done. Age needs to be as prominent as gender, race, and ethnicity in diversity trainings. Employers need to take the initiative to ensure their staff is educated on ageism. The EEOC needs a better and higher budget to increase workflow. More research needs to be conducted on EEOC cases that get rashly dismissed. Generations can come together, to learn, communicate, and build teams for the betterment of the companies and the Nation as a whole. (Burchett et al, 2005)
Ageism is not a new problem; it has been occurring for decades upon decades with very little activity to adequately address the problem. The United States is now facing the pending retirement of the baby boomer generation, and shortages within the workforce are pressing the need for retention and employment of older workers. It is time for action. If you are not currently classified as an older worker, one day you will be. The responsibility rests on the shoulders of every American, because one day we will all be older, and the person being forced into early retirement, denied promotions, or turned away from employment could be you.
Burchett, B. M., Palmore, E. B., Branch, L., & Harris, D. K. (2005). Employment discrimination. Encyclopedia of Ageism; p 122-125.
Dennis, H. & Thomas, K. (2007). Ageism in the workplace. Generations; 31:1; p. 84-89.
Legal Eagle Eye Newsletter for the Nursing Profession. (2007). Discrimination: Nurse fired withont an investigation. Legal Eagle Eye Newsletter for the Nursing Profession; 15:11; p. 4.
Palmore, E. B., Branch, L., & Harris, D. K. (2005). Costs of ageism. Encyclopedia of Ageism; p. 80-83.