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Successful Aging: Age discrimination and what you need to know

Dear readers,

Perhaps you noticed that every so often there is an age-related theme for a month that draws our attention to particular challenge facing older adults. April is Parkinson’s Awareness month while May is Older Americans and National Stroke Awareness Month; the month of June is dedicated to National Elder Abuse Awareness and November is National Alzheimer’s and Caregiving month.

All are important.

Here is one more that occurs in November: This time the designation is a celebration drawing our attention to the important issue of age discrimination in the workplace. This year is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the federal 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, legislation that applies to almost all of us who are 40 years or older. This 50th anniversary was marked by a one-day symposium at UC Berkeley, sponsored by the AARP Foundation and UC Berkeley. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate as a panelist for the event along with outstanding academics and attorneys.

About the 1967 act: It protected individuals from age discrimination in the work place who were age 40 to 65. Later the age cap of 65 was removed meaning the law protects almost all of us who are 40 and over. The law applies to companies with 20 or more employees in all aspects of employment including decisions of hiring, firing, layoffs, pay, benefits, promotions, demotions and performance reviews.

This is all good news.

Some are exempt from the law: elected officials, independent contractors or military personnel and those for whom age is a bona fide occupational qualification such as occupations that involve public safety. These include airline pilots, firefighters and bus drivers. Models also are excluded from the law.

Fifty years ago, it would not have been unusual to see a newspaper advertisement indicating that only those 55 years and younger should apply. Even though we may not see such advertisements today, age discrimination still exists. There are ways to get around it; the tech industry is a good example.

High-tech industries such as those in Silicon Valley are known to advertise jobs preferring those who have less than three or five years of experience. By definition that excludes experienced workers who are older. An ad also may require applicants to be digital natives, brought up in the digital world. Note those who grew up with video games don’t necessarily know about software or big data. The median age of seven of the largest tech companies is 30. We are reminded of a quote from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “Young people are just smarter.”

Laurie A. McCann, a lawyer with the AARP Litigation Foundation states that despite the law, age discrimination in the workplace remains pervasive according to. She adds that the law may not be up to the task.

Age discrimination is not only a negative for older workers; it is a negative for the work environment creating uncertainty and anxiety. Some workers may think, “Am I next?” Such discrimination creates low morale and can decrease interest in the job. It can reduce productivity, be an obstacle to team work and collaboration and as well as create legal tension.

On the upside, the law gives millions of older adults who want or need to work the opportunity to do so and hopefully remain employed as long as they meet performance expectations.

Here are a few takeaways from the symposium:

Age is a poor predictor of performance.

The issue should be ability not age.

The law cannot mandate attitudes and beliefs; it does influence policies and behaviors.

Age bias is hard to prove.

State laws often provide stronger protection than the federal law.

Age cases become more complicated when combined with race and gender.

Negative stereotypes about older workers continue to prevail.

Hiding ones’ age is difficult. Online employment applications are subject to algorithms and what is called data mining tracing our activity on the Internet. For example, Facebook asks for one’s date of birth so we can wish our “friends” happy birthday.

Ageism is the core of the problem.

Next week we invite you to take a myth quiz about age and work. Additionally we will address the fundamental issue of ageism.

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