Dick Meister: Too damn old!

Pub date December 18, 2009
WriterDick Meister
SectionBruce Blog

The right to protection from age discrimination will remain a second class civil right

(Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century.)

Racism and sexism we know plenty about. But what of ageism?

Ageism can strike anyone once they reach a certain age – sometimes as early as 40 – and it can make the victim feel unwanted, unneeded and oppressed by all in this work and youth oriented society.

It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, brown or Asian, man or woman. What matters is your age.

Federal law and several state laws say employers cannot consider your age in deciding if you should be hired, fired, retired, promoted, laid off or whatever. But the laws are widely violated, and sometimes invalidated by courts.

Some of the court decisions have been downright bizarre. One recent ruling, for example, found that an employer who told a worker he was being fired because “you’re too damn old for this kind of work” was not violating the law. Another court said a boss who told a worker he had to make way for younger workers was simply stating “a fact of life.”

The Supreme Court recently made a key ruling that workers who are fired because of their age will have to prove that their age was the decisive factor in the firing, not just a contributing factor. A bill currently in Congress would invalidate that ruling.

The number of workers filing legal complaints of age discrimination has been growing steadily. Between 2007 and 2008, the number grew by 30 percent to nearly 25,000 cases. The actual number of older workers discriminated against is undoubtedly even higher, if only because many victims can’t afford the court proceedings that often follow the filing of complaints.

Age discrimination is expected to become an even greater problem as the number of older workers continues to grow steadily and because of current economic conditions that are forcing more and more older workers of retirement age to seek jobs.

The drying up of pension funds and the increase in the Social Security retirement age has also led more older people to seek jobs – jobs that are hard enough for anyone to find, but particularly hard for many older workers. Their unemployment figures have been consistently higher than those of most other groups.

Not all the unemployed older workers want or need jobs. But most do, as has been shown repeatedly in studies by private and public agencies. Many badly need the income. Most also seek jobs as the way to gain self-esteem and an active, meaningful existence.

But younger workers, of course, can be paid less than older workers with seniority and usually are less demanding and more easily directed because of their inexperience and eagerness to secure a foothold.

Employers also are greatly influenced by the myths about older workers that many people still accept as fact.

The widely-held assumption that as workers age their productivity declines, for instance, is simply not true on a general basis, As a matter of fact, the studies show that among white-collar workers, those 45 or older produce more than their younger counterparts, thanks to their greater knowledge and experience. Among blue-collar workers, there is no substantial difference in output.

Older workers also have lower rather than higher rates of absenteeism than younger workers, fewer on-the-job accidents and at least as great a capacity to learn new skills required by new technology.

Generally, older workers also are more stable and dependable. They show more satisfaction with their jobs and hold them much longer.

Those facts alone should be enough to cause employers to mend their prejudicial ways. But they haven’t been, and aren’t likely to be in the future. The right to protection from age discrimination, the right to protection from ageism sadly will remain what one writer calls a second-class civil right.

Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century. You can contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.