Sunday, June 12, 2011

Age-based discrimination

At my place of employment, I've been noticing a definite uptick in something that is illegal and widespread--a pattern of harassment and discrimination against older workers. It seems to reflect a pattern in wider culture that's been exacerbated by the "Great Recession" and by political shifts.

Has this discrimination always been there and I simply have not noticed it earlier because I was "young"?  Or is it part of some developing social movement?


Though I don't have specific statics, news reports that I've heard all suggest that the recession has hit older workers hardest; the older you are when you are "downsized," the longer it takes to find another job. This is because, we're told, employers have their pick of prospective employees, and they'd much rather hire the young.

In my own place of employment, I've noticed an increase in both civil service actions, and outright harassment, against older workers. Those who can't be removed "legally" by civil service procedures are often hounded out of their jobs by a sudden increase of duties, or burdens that seem calculated to create hardships for older workers, such as excessive overtime mandates or physically-intensive duties. (Personally, I was made to clean up a large storage area while I was in the middle of massive office renovation; at another time, I was made to deliver a truckload of heavy equipment across the state while in the middle of a major install.)

When decisions are made on who to hire for vacant positions, one criterion that's at the forefront is the applicant's age. Although age is not listed on the application, codewords such as "when did he graduate from high school" or "how extensive is his employment history" are used instead. And applicants who are obviously older are invariably screened out.

Of course, this is all illegal (at least on paper), but nowhere have I seen any evidence that the existing federal mandates against age discrimination are being enforced, despite widespread anecdotal accounts of discrimination. But the problem with age-based discrimination is that it is not just illegal, it's also wrong. I have managed to succeed in my job despite all of the unilateral physical requirements because I am still capable of the same level of work that I was in my twenties. Becoming "older" does not cause the worker to become less productive. Quite the contrary--having weathered many storms, I work a lot smarter now. Most older workers are quite flexible and efficient and defy all stereotypes that are associated with becoming "old."

There is one factor that I haven't considered, and one that I never hear mentioned in the media: older workers often are paid more, simply because of seniority. It does make economic sense to fire one higher-paid older worker and hire one or more young graduates. There is a certain Darwinian logic to this, and America has never pretended to practice Capitalism any other way. If true that age discrimination is simply another unspoken mechanism to make America more "competitive," then we all have reason to fear for our economic future--because everyone, no matter how young they are today, will become old tomorrow.

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