Ageism At The Workplace

JUST when Pierce Brosnan thought he had hit upon the perfect anti-ageing device, it got snatched away from him. As James Bond of the silver screen, he managed to defy all the usual signs that betray old age – wrinkles, thinning hair, sagging muscles and a flagging libido. But then what Hollywood giveth, it can also taketh away. The man with the licence to kill lost his privilege to a younger actor called Daniel Craig. Poor Brosnan, with no Moneypenny shoulders to cry on, opted for Playboy. He apparently told the magazine in an interview that age discrimination – popularly known as ‘ageism’ – had done him 

Here it is then, a new kind of discrimination. After gender, class and race discrimination, now comes prejudice against age. And it cuts both ways – whether the applicant is too young or too old. But then the most virulent form of this is the visible bias in the workplace against those who are perceived ‘old’. In fact, some studies show that intolerance against older men is far higher than gender or race discrimination. 

The term ‘ageism’ was coined by Robert N Butler, a physician who won a Pulitzer for his work on ageing. The International Longevity Center, in a brief biography of Dr Butler on its site, says this: “Dr Butler was a principal investigator of one of the first interdisciplinary, comprehensive, longitudinal studies of healthy community-residing older persons… It was found that much attributed to old age is in fact a function of disease, socialeconomic adversity and even personality. This resulted in a different vision of old age… This earlier research helped establish the fact that senility is not inevitable with aging, but is, instead, a consequence of disease.” 

All organisations probably have, at some point or the other, discriminated against candidates because of their age. It is natural, since without proper research on ageing or the effects of ageing, popular perceptions hold sway. This is a bit like notions in the past, when women were found unfit for a certain kind of job, or a man from a certain race untrustworthy for a certain profession, because of deep-rooted beliefs which had no basis in real life. In fact, ‘affirmative action’ is exactly what was supposed to remove such biases. 

This inequity manifests itself in many ways. There are some jobs which have a mandatory retirement age, where it is felt that the nature of the work – such as airline pilots — requires high level of mental and physical skill, which atrophies with age. There is nothing to prove that yet. Interestingly, it is felt that the concept of a fixed retirement age is an invention of the modern age, corresponding with the implementation of the pension system. In olden days, most people worked till they had a disability or till they died. To be fair to the employers and other job aspirants, with a growing number of younger people queuing outside the office doors for a job or for a promotion, most companies feel that older people should make way for the younger lot. 

In the US, at the federal level, there is legislation to ensure that those over 40 are not overlooked by employers or given a raw deal in the workplace – The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, under which it is “unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his/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.” 

The US, and many other Western economies, probably has to enforce this law because retirement would mean pension and that spells a huge drain on the economy. Many old-time corporate icons have had to perish or sell parts of the organisation because of the mounting pension liabilities. It is well-known that the lumpiness of over-60 in the demographic profile of most Western economies is worrying the hell out of them. According to an UN study, over two billion people – or about 22% of the world’s population — in the world will be over 60 years of age by 2050. 

In India, while companies are waking up to the complexities of gender and race discrimination, there seems to be little awareness about ‘ageism’. One of the reasons could be the army of young people constantly knocking on the doors of companies. A substantial portion (around 50%) of India’s population will be below 35 in a few years. But then, all these guys will also be touching 60 some day. To avoid a crisis then, it might make sense to implement affirmative action against ‘ageism’ today.
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