Discrimination has been with us for a long, long time, based on one characteristic or another that allows one group to identify another as less worthy, less intelligent, less skilled and on and on regardless of the time and place. Whether it’s based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender or one of a hundred other variables, we’ve always found ways to stereotype our fellow humans.
For centuries, seeing “the other” as in some way undeserving was an acceptable attitude. It’s only recently that we’ve taken the trouble to look at discrimination as a problem, not a solution. Racial segregation, for example, was seen a part of the natural order. The right to vote was withheld from women to protect society because women, by their very nature, weren’t up to the task.
No culture was exempt from the problem, and no culture can claim to be exempt today. While we’ve made dishearteningly little progress, at least we’ve started taking a relatively clear-eyed look at the groups that are affected and the situations in which discrimination occurs. At least we’re willing to acknowledge discrimination as a problem, although we can’t even be trusted to get that right much of the time.
Age-based discrimination has its own long history, with generation after generation considering ageism a perfectly natural part of life. It wasn’t until 1967 that the federal government adopted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, not long after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as part of that decade’s wave of anti-discrimination measures.
Recently, however, age discrimination has become a more prominent concern. Its increased visibility may be the result of the collision of two forces: the notable aging of the workforce, still ongoing, and a recession that put jobs at a premium and let employers be extremely picky about hiring.
As a result, the voices of the older unemployed have become louder. What has the younger generation had to say in response?
It might be fair to ask what answer we should expect. After all, how can we ask the young to show much compassion for what may well be the competition? Jobs are scarce. Applicants arrive in multitudes. A little discrimination, always so difficult to prove, can improve the odds enormously.
Add to that the somewhat popular notion that the older generation is intent on consuming all available resources, that the young are forced to work on behalf of someone else’s golden years without hope that there will be anything left for them. Resentment starts to enter the picture.
The young may seem to be unlikely champions of a movement to defeat age discrimination, but the young are the ones who must rise to the occasion. Defeating racial discrimination doesn’t depend on changing attitudes within the race suffering from that discrimination. The gay community is not charged with eliminating discrimination within that community. In all cases, the targeted group can push for change, but meaningful progress doesn’t happen without the rest of us, the ones who are safe, embracing the change.
Eliminating age discrimination, then, requires something of the young. In fact, it asks a lot. After all, it’s not, at least at first glance, in the self-interest of the young to willingly forego their advantage. However, that’s not the whole picture.
First, it’s worth noting that age discrimination, even as a legal matter, begins much sooner than many may think. In law, the magic age is 40, a landmark that may seem distant to a 25-year-old. The plain truth is that those years pass quickly, and even the youngest workers will find themselves on the wrong side of the discriminatory divide much sooner than they may think. A longer view of self-interest puts things in a different light.
Second, age discrimination, like every other form of discrimination, is rooted in stereotypes. Older workers are inflexible, resistant to change, uncomfortable with technology, tied irrevocably to older approaches and possessed of inflated opinions of their own worth. Yes, some older workers are like that, but remember this: Some younger workers are like that, too. Perhaps we can agree that the description simply fits some workers, regardless of age.
In reality, there is considerable evidence that those older-worker stereotypes are simply false, and there is additional evidence that a workplace benefits from a generational mix.
No one is exempt from stereotyping. Everyone knows that millennials, the most recent additions to the workforce, have no work ethic. They’re flighty. They need to be coddled. They want things done for them. If all this describes you, you may well be a millennial, but only because some people share those traits regardless of age.
Laws are in place to prevent age discrimination. Frankly, they don’t do the job very well. When it comes to age, there are too many ways to discriminate with great subtlety, making detection, let alone prosecution, enormously difficult. The group that’s being protected is constantly shifting, with new people joining every day, and there is considerable variation in what “excessive” age means from industry to industry.
As a result, this is one kind of discrimination that will only improve when young people disavow the stereotypes that seem so firmly in place today. In return, the older generation might even reciprocate. One day, we may all come to understand that there are spoiled brats in their 50s and old fogeys in their 20s. The numbers themselves are not the point.
Paul Freiberger is the author of When Can You Start? How to Ace the Interview and Win the Job (Career Upshift Productions, 2013). He is also the President of Shimmering Resumes, a career counseling and professional resume writing company in Northern California.