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Successful Aging: If we have ageism laws, what’s the problem?

Last week we discussed G.C.’s somewhat ageist experience with a cardiac technician (and by ageist, we are referring to age discrimination). This week I’d like to explore that topic a little further.

Ageism — prejudice against older people — is the last remaining socially acceptable “ism” in our society. While racism, sexism and homophobia still exist, ageism seems a bit different for one reason: It’s considered a social norm. It is acceptable when an older consumer is ignored at a department store counter or is invisible in a group meeting with his or her physician.

It’s fine when older people are used as caricatures in TV ads and comedy sketches or when the media depict old people as grumpy or senile. If we portrayed members of any of the federally protected groups in the same consistent way, there would be a public outcry and no doubt numerable lawsuits.

Data clearly indicate that age discrimination exists. According to a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, one in five adults reported age discrimination in health care settings. A 2013 AARP study indicated two in three workers ages 45 to 74 reported they experienced age discrimination in the workplace. A 2017 AARP study found nearly two-thirds of workers ages 55 to 64 reported their age was a barrier to getting a job.

Fortunately, we have a federal law that addresses age discrimination in the workplace: the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which turns 50 this year. It protects workers and job applicants age 40 and over from age-based discrimination in all aspects of employment. It does not apply to elected officials, independent contractors or military personnel.

The law does apply to employers with at least 20 employees, employment agencies, the federal government, state and local governments and labor organizations with at least 25 members. Some occupations are exempt from the law. These are jobs that have bona fide occupational qualifications, or BFOQs, when fitness is fundamental to the job, particularly involving public safety. Examples are firefighters, police, bus drivers and airline pilots. Fashion models also qualify.

If we have a law, what’s the problem?

Chris Farrell writes in Forbes that the law may be backfiring. Although it has been somewhat effective in lessening age discrimination in the workplace, it has led to an unintended consequence. This law may be responsible for older workers being less likely to get a job after a layoff. Therefore, younger workers may have an advantage.

Farrell’s interviews indicate that some managers were reluctant to add protected workers to their workforce, not wanting to take the risk of an age discrimination lawsuit.

Ageism has found a new home in the internet age. Lauren Rosenblatt reports in the Los Angeles Times that many older workers are struggling with a new form of age discrimination: want ads that require applicants to be digital natives. Many believe this is a code word for preferring younger workers who have grown up with technology, eliminating older applicants who are assumed to be slow to learn, to adapt to new technology and likely to cost more to train.

The good news is there is no correlation reported between age and work performance. However, if performance is based on speed and linked to accuracy, age may play a role.

Years ago at USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center, I led a team to develop the first national corporate management training program to prevent age discrimination in the workplace and to use the skills and talents of older workers most effectively. The project was about attitudes, perceptions and beliefs, not laws and made a positive difference in managers’ decisions about older workers.

We can mandate behaviors, not attitudes. If we believe that older adults are less capable, less talented, less intelligent and lower performers, laws will be just part of the solution. We know there are ways to get around laws, so education is key.

Fortunately, we now have organizations and movements that are changing the narrative about aging. Examples are the Radical Age Movement (, the book “This Chair Rocks” by Ashton Applewhite (, The Framework Institute (, and the work of Dr. Bill Thomas at

We also have movements devoted to positive aging in the form of organizations, newsletters and conferences, and of course I write this column to convey a more realistic view of aging.

While the fact remains that we have much to do to change society’s perception of aging. I am hopeful.

Send emails to Helen Dennis at, or go to

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