Age Discrimination in the U. S. A.


David Brooks of the New York Times recently outlined a Republican proposal for fixing health care. The one paragraph that drew my attention reads as follows:

Finally, under this approach, any new spending would be offset with cuts so that health care costs do not continue to devour more and more of the federal budget. This could be done, for example, by gradually raising the retirement age.

Raising the retirement age only makes sense if you’re trying to solve a math problem and you choose to ignore the reality of today’s employment market. The reality is that age discrimination is so rampant that raising the retirement age would only serve to add millions of Baby Boomers to the unemployment rolls.

Age discrimination is America’s dirty little secret. It’s a secret because age discrimination plaintiffs have few options under the law. Sure, you can file an EEOC claim, but the practical facts are that the EEOC is has a huge backlog of complaints and age discrimination is very difficult to prove. A candidate for an open position has no visibility to the ages of the other candidates, so any kind of complaint is a shot in the dark.

The facts speak for themselves. The numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics clearly demonstrate that over-50’s remain in the ranks of the unemployed longer than their younger counterparts. In the Seattle area, it’s common knowledge that the hip technology companies systematically discriminate against those with gray hair—so much so that many over-50’s no longer bother to apply at those firms. Over the past year we have heard numerous tales of exceptionally qualified over-50 candidates who consistently pass phone screens only to lose out after the company’s interviewers see them live and in-person. We know of some companies who have made the disclosure of the year of high school graduation a mandatory field in the online application, an egregious legal violation if there ever was one.

Age discrimination is based largely on stereotypes that over-50’s are technologically challenged or “slow.” This is all stuff and nonsense. Steve Jobs was at his peak when he hit 50. In the many organizations we have served, we have seen many under-30’s who would easily qualify as “slow” and “technologically challenged.” Age has nothing to do with the ability to do a job; the ability to do any kind of work is dependent entirely on the abilities and character of the individual in question. This applies to the young as well as the old, for there are too many stories of young people being denied opportunity based on vague premises such as a “lack of seasoning.”

Equal employment opportunity is all about hiring people for their talents and taking irrelevant factors out of the hiring decision. HR professionals need adhere to their code of professional ethics and challenge ageist stereotypes when they see them. Most importantly, leaders and hiring managers need to adopt processes that ensure that all candidates have a fair shot all the way along the hiring path.

Raising the retirement age is a classic example of solving one problem to create another, a skill our government has mastered. I can certainly envision our political leaders responding to this “new” problem of age discrimination by creating affirmative action programs and stacks of new, complex regulations that no one wants.

Let’s keep them out of it and solve the problem ourselves. “We are confronted with a moral issue as old as the scripture . . .  as clear as the American Constitution,” to borrow a quote from JFK. Instead of waiting for the regulators to bully us into submission, let’s do the right thing. Let’s hire the best person for the position, regardless of how many or how few miles they have on the biological odometer.

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Bob Mendonsa

Bob Mendonsa is an experienced, engaging facilitator with over twenty years of experience delivering and designing leadership and organizational development programs at all organizational levels in a wide range of industries. Bob’s body of work also includes significant experience in team building, human resources and assignments as the top HR/OD executive at three different companies.