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A Few Thoughts on “Ageism” in the Workplace

Posted by Frank Steinberg | Jun 19, 2012 | 0 Comments

A recent article from Fox News suggests that we all should start to focus on ageism as a societal problem. According to the author,

Ageism is the last of the -isms (racism, sexism) to get any attention, especially in the workplace. But ageism is rampant. Once workers hit 50 or 55, they start to worry about how their age is perceived and whether they will be passed over for a job or promotion. And for good reason.

I question whether we should be talking about “ageism” as a category that implies a consistent un fairness to older citizens merely by virtue of their age.  The author argues that society “discriminates on the basis of age,” citing as evidence more frequent driving tests, senior citizen discounts, and birthday cards that joke about going downhill to prove the point.  Fine.  But we “discriminate” in connection with youth as well.  You can't go on some amusement park rides, for instance, unless you're at least 48 inches tall, can't drive in most states until age 16 or 17, and can't legally drink anywhere until age 21.  People freely talk about about some as being “young and stupid.”  What does this prove?  That we should establish another “ism” called “youthism”?

None of this is to deny the basic truth that employers often discriminate against older (age 40+) workers. A look at most age distribution charts that accompany severance proposals in corporate downsizings will show you that older workers often — perhaps usually — are disproportionately selected for termination.  And older workers often have a terribly difficult time finding new employment.

But is any sound analytical or social purpose served by focusing on age discrimination as “ageism,” and making it part of the diversity discussion like sexism or racism?  Those isms often conceal more than they reveal, and usually generate more heat than light.  Wouldn't society would be better served if we talked less, not more, about the isms, and instead focused on the specifics of truth and justice in individual cases?

Climbing down off of my soapbox, all of this reminds me that the Chad Mitchell Trio did a song called The John Birch Society, which referred to socialism as the “ism dismalest of all.”  It's fun, and worth the 3 1/2 minutes.

About the Author

Frank Steinberg

Frank is the founder and principal of Steinberg Law, LLC. A Jersey boy born and bred, he focuses on employment litigation and counseling, business litigation,  and aviation law. Following law school and a clerkship in the federal district court Frank spent his early career with large litigation ...

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