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Age Discrimination in the Workplace

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Age discrimination occurs when a decision is made on the basis of a person’s age. In the workplace, these are most often than not decisions made about recruitment, promotion and termination. In other words, discrimination can be defined as the actions arising from institutions and individuals that disproportionally and systematically harm members of socially marginalized groups. Discrimination can have consequences in it’s own right affecting health, well-being and occupational behavior resting on the notion there can be legitimate differential treatment of people on the basis of visible characteristics of age. Although such discrimination could be seen as reluctance to hire workers who were perceived to be too young and immature for the job, in practice it refers to a bias against older workers. In dealing with expected age preference for workers some evidence suggests that negative attitudes to the age of workers will not be linear but rather characterized by cycles over the life course.

Traditionally, age discrimination has been relatively high in the 20s, decline in the 30s and then rises again. Unexpectedly, some studies have found that is begins to decline again around age 55. However, workers approaching 50 and those nearing the normative or conventional retirements age of 65, are most vulnerable to experiencing discrimination and more predominantly an issue for workers skilled or semi-skilled. In 2000 worker’s median age was 45 and by 2005 15% of the U.S. workforce will be over 55. By 2030, 20% of Americans will be over the age of 65. (Gover, Huray, & Matloff, ). Because of financial reasons and the cost of Social Security being too high, older people will need to redefine retirement. For these reason, the workforce will look to extend employment well past today’s retirement age of 65 until the age of 75.

In societies that celebrate youthfulness above all else, it can be very difficult for even highly qualified professionals to find new positions after the age of 50. But for most older workers, there appears little they can do to resist being swept aside in exchange of younger replacements. Many of those retiring early from companies are being forced out by companies to replace them with younger workers or immigrant workers with the idea of substantially lowering wage rates. The amount of age discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) has risen 23.5%, which indicates a fast growing category where overwhelming evidence points directly at U.S. companies as the culprit. It is not always easy; however, to gauge how attitudes might translate into discriminatory behaviors, but there are many examples that indicate that biases and preconceptions among the aging population exists.

It has been found that 84% of Americans, 60 and older, report one or more incidents of ageism. This reports include insulting jokes, disrespect, patronizing behavior and assumptions about frailty or ailments and such patterns are manifested through a culture consumed with “youth” and these biases are passed along, socialized and enacted within institutions and organizations (Roscigno, Mong, Byron, & Tester 2007). Age discrimination can result in lower levels of organizational commitment for older workers; whereby, they can be actively and systematically forced out of a particular job. Although cost savings is the most common form of age discrimination, it is often justified by claiming older workers cost more with wage increases and healthcare costs as the cause.

Replacing older workers with younger ones circumvents pension payouts and decreases wages. Moreover, promotions and on-the-job training opportunities can be reserved for younger workers who are viewed as cheaper and more worthy of the long-term investment (Roscigno, Mong, Byron, & Tester 2007). Some companies maintain the view that older people that have not been promoted or have remained in the the same position are inferior and lack the desired productivity levels required to get the job done. The case can be made that most people do their most important discoveries in their twenties and thirties and by their late forties have done their most important work and before they become dated it makes sense to hire employees whose education is more up-to-date. These aging workers are often viewed as hoarding the best jobs or as a more expensive, less flexibility liability and as a result older workers might be treated and evaluated differently by management.

While discrimination seems to devalue older people and constrains their life chances or can otherwise adversely affect them, discrimination is no necessarily always bad. We can distinguish and then positively value a group and its members or give them special rights and privileges such as the right to early retirement without penalty, reduced rates for public transportation as well as health and entertainment discounts — just to name a few. Social implications as such hold the view that it is normal and beneficial for older adults to disengage and reduce their social involvement in life.

And if for some reason they were they were forced out of retirement, some would be able to bring with them earned retirement benefits from previous employers that can cost far less than a younger worker that needs health insurance and other fringe benefits. Additionally, the older worker can bring wisdom of experience, and maturity on the job. Evidence suggests that older workers often exhibit higher job commitment and have a lower rate of absenteeism than younger workers. While it can often take longer to train older people, they change jobs less frequently and in the long-run can be more cost affective than to train younger workers. Additionally, older workers typically work smarter, more efficiently and have stronger interpersonal skills and in general have better over all human behavior.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), must be adhered to by companies with 20 or more employees, labor organizations, and government agencies. The law applies to applicants and employees alike, preventing prospective bosses from replacing older employees with younger ones. The ADEA law was written in 1967 to help older workers retain their positions, and receive the respect they have earned for years of service. The laws; however, don’t always protect against indiscretion — not even in the most formalized, bureaucratic environments. Together along with informal work places play a role in shaping cultures and sub-cultures that are likely to impact behavior and the delivery of policies. That said, management may be placed under significant pressure to hire younger rather than older workers to off-set the cost associated with retaining older workers. This can give management the flexibility and power to ignore or evoke formal organizational procedures and rules, even neutral ones, that can in fact be discriminatorily applied and used in targeted, detrimental ways.

Many companies have found themselves in trouble of discriminatory behaviors or outright illegal practices, but not all need to be necessarily conscious ones driven by explicit biases against older workers. Take for example, Gordon Denton, a 74 year old security guard. Because he worked in a violent section of the hospital his employer wanted him to take a new territory claiming he could possibly be injured. He was ultimately terminated because he would not accept the job transfer and insurance liability became the employer’s excuse. Here discrimination is largely invisible, yet discriminatory patterns manifest especially where perceived cost outweighs what employers deem as the true benefit. However, more explicitly, Universities administrators have assigned undesirable teaching position to older faculty to try and encourage early retirement.

In an age discrimination case against brought against SuperValu stores, a motion summary judgement was denied since the strongest evidence against them were notes found from a meeting made by an internal Vice President that said, “This is how we stay legal, to eliminate the old people form the system.” Under the perception of older workers unwilling or unable to keep up with the demands of a changing workforce, Shirley Williams, a 64 year old director of finance, was terminated after being told she was too old and untrainable for computer school. Cost is another significant motivator and noted across a variety of contexts, but most often rooted in the financial future of the company.

Despite 17 years of management experience and was a highly awarded and regarded employee; 40 years old, Tom Mills, was replaced by a 35 year old manager who had only been with the company for one year and lacked the experience and qualifications necessary for the position. AT&T was sued for terminating older workers and replacing them with immigrant workers that were willing to work for lower salaries. Another type of cost savings practice that is all too common these days is outsourcing. And those charging age discrimination against their employer on these basis are claiming their jobs have not gone away and ultimately before they are eliminated are charged with the daunting task of spending the last 6 to 8 months training their replacements. Bank of America, General Electric, Microsoft, Intel are of the several Major U.S. companies being held under intense scrutiny for outsourcing jobs to india all in effort to employ younger, more cost effective employees.

While age discrimination complaints are growing at a rapid pace, it is getting harder to prove age discrimination in court and as a general rule they have not been particularly sensitive to the plight of older workers. Take the California state appeals case brought under the the state’s age discrimination law said that employers could give younger workers preference over the older ones if they had an economic justification. Legislation such this and the generation gap, are pitting younger workers against older workers and is creating a us and them scenario. The fundamental differences between both sides render them qualified for the appropriate positions, but it is the physical appearance that renders the debate. And with the physical appearance, young or old, employers are readily able to discern capabilities between the two. Generally, the older generation believes in hard work and that you have to pay your dues in order to climb the ranks.

Today’s younger employees, however, are looking for immediate gratification. The older generation worker most often believes in being loyal to his company and will stay for a long period of time. In contrast, the younger generation are loyal to their own career advancement, which means that they will job-hop until they find the perfect fit. The older generation worker started working in an age where rules and regulations and a strict hierarchical system of authority were at the order of the day. As such, younger workers often feel that these more mature employees are “stuck in their ways” and resistant to change and innovation. The younger generation, in turn, place high value on skills instead of authority. They crave the independence to make decisions and want the freedom to innovate. Younger workers, with their constant need for immediate and up-to-date information, also prefer open channels of communication, which allow them to give some input into the workings of the organization.

Because of this, older employees often feel that the “youngsters” are impatient and disrespectful towards authority. Research suggests that the two generations have different ways of thinking about recognition. While older employees often crave the respect that comes with experience and putting in long hours, younger employees think of recognition in terms of payment or rank. Yet both sides are fighting as equally hard to stay relevant in the eyes of the employer.

By way of creating standards, both sides of the age spectrum are working hard to stay mentally active, want to be productive and useful, want access to ongoing training and development all which they feel will afford them greater opportunities. Whether this means climbing the corporate later, retaining one’s job after many years of service or simply not being discriminated against based of the physical appearance of one’s skin, one single fundamental issue remains. The U.S needs to a hard,fast look at its discrimination practices and experiment with policy options that will change the face of inequality and hire people based on skill and merit.

Age has been, and continues to be, an important cultural aspect of status in society and every demographic indicator suggests its significance. From political, cultural and social interactions, all have lead to a clear-cut expectation that with life expectancies increasing, age as a status and its sociological implications, will only intensify in the decades ahead. If we are to overcome the culture and tradition of discrimination against older workers, it will be necessary for labor laws to be less rigid and more adaptable to the growing and older population that will soon outnumber the young people. Age discrimination of any kind or condition, should be considered a despicable practice especially when related to older generation workers. The one issue that does not even the playing field is that if a younger worker is passed on up on an opportunity, they have much more time and will appear more valuable to future employers since at the starting point of their career.

However, with older workers the opportunities are few and far between leaving them with less time and money to prepare for retirement. With so many people reaching retirement age, society needs to change how we look at their contribution and this needs to be done through creating older worker retaining programs. Our legislators should be looking at ways to introduce policy options such as extending tax credits for retaining and training older workers and extending the Tax Credit as and incentive to keep them working. All together we need to put a stop to discrimination in any universities and federal or state agencies that spend public funds.

These actions combined with bridging the generation gap and breaking down the barriers with communication and outreach efforts all seem a viable way. Although in today’s economic climate, younger people represent the highest number of unemployed. Recovery for the older worker has remained high because companies now are starting to fear law suits before making a lay-off decision. Though this should this should not change the need to a call for a full stop of discrimination by companies to get the attention of employers that have embedded age discrimination into their culture and the penalties should be swift, severe and publicly visible. This, too may also put a stop to institution that routinely practice age discrimination and are often often ignorant of the fact that their practices are discriminatory.

While it was suggested to avoid Kantian ethics because of the premise of it being too rigid, the argument can be made that age discrimination definitely needs more policy and structure to avoid leaving behind what could otherwise be a marginalized class of people. It is our duty to provide fair work environments by not using the people as the means to an end and without individually imposing our own wills and desires to affect the outcome. Working to create equality among younger and older workers, should be more about educating employers on how best to manage their employees with the intension of bringing about total good. Fulfilling the ultimate requirement that maintains the authority aimed morally and ethically protecting the people will ultimately create respect for all persons. The single moral obligation know as Categorical Imperative and that which Kant is very well known for derives from the sense of acting out of duty.

Categorical imperatives by itself must be fully obeyed by everyone through observing moral law and where all moral obligations are generated and tested. Though Kant said that moral means and ends could be applied to categorical imperatives as long as it was based on an end within itself not some other need, purpose or desire. Thus a categorical imperative is unconditional obligation regardless of our will and desire. Kant believed if an action was not not carried out without the motive of duty, then it was without moral value and every action should have pure intention; otherwise, it is meaningless.

He did not necessarily believe that the final result was the most important aspect of an action, but that how the person felt while carrying out the action with the result attached. A categorical imperative, on the other hand, denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. Kant argued, hypothetical moral systems cannot persuade moral action or be regarded as bases for moral judgments against others, because the imperatives on which they are based rely too heavily on subjective considerations.

Playing devils advocate, Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its usefulness in minimizing negative action. This means that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome. John Stuart Mills believed actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Of course, we are still unclear about what constitutes “the greatest good”. For some it is the tendency to augment or diminish happiness or pleasure with no distinction between pleasure and persons. Whether it be that not all pleasures are equally worthy or they they are measured strictly by being quantitative or qualitative, the underlying principal is that we think of it in terms of well-being. In either case, the principle defines the moral right in terms of an objective, material good.

The point is to make the theory “scientific,” and the utility principle is an attempt to bridge the gap between empirical facts and a normative conclusion. While attempting to put and end to age discrimination for older workers, for all intents-and-purposes, is a theory that helps to support the idea of providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Doing so promotes the moral values and obligations of society; however, will isolate the younger workers and as such will leave them marginalized as a class. As a minority, they will feel left out and will defeat the purpose of trying to end age discrimination. Though the theory has problems, it should be the goal to protect both classes and use normative conclusion as a barometer to test the principles and any irregular outcomes should be analyzed and handled on a case-by-case basis.

So it remains, preconceptions having to due with physical and mental ability, flexibility and rigidity, training potential and customer preferences for youth, continue to pervade many contemporary workplaces. These preconceptions often influence discriminatory action and employers will legitimate their behaviors be evoking cost savings rational. And for ageing working on the the losing end, being displaced experience downward maker mobility in the course of efforts to gain labor market entry are concrete realties. Actively putting a stop to age discrimination, is a very positive thing to have people overcoming biases and prejudices in the work place. It doesn’t matter why they must learn to face uncomfortable situations, or deal with different types of people, because their exposure to them will enable communication to take place, bridging gaps that are unfounded.

Harris, Jr., C. (2007). Applying Moral Theories (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. Van Camp, J., & Olen, J. (2005). Applying Ethics A Text with Readings (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth. Roscigno, Vincent J., Mong, S., Byron, R. & Tester, G. (2007, September). Age Discrimination, Social Closure and Employment. Social Forces, 86(1), 314-334. Gover, J. E., Huray, P. G., & Matloff, N. (). America’s Real Workforce Problem: The Age Discrimination Epedimic. , (), . Adams, Scott J. 2002 “Passed Over for Promotion Because of Age: An Empirical Analysis of the Consequences.” Journal of Labor Research 23(3):447-461. Abott, Andrew. 1981 “Status and Status Strain in the Professions.” American Journal of Sociology 86(4):819-835. Donahue, John J., & Peter Sigelman. 1991. “The Changing Nature of Employment Discrimination Litigation.” Stanford Law Review 43(5):983-1033. Duncan, Colin, & Wendy Loretto. 2004. “Never the Right Age? Gender and Age-Based Discrimination in Employment.” Gender, Work and Organization 11(1):95-115.

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