Addressing Ageism

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A writer for Forbes recently argued that the media needs to start “addressing the workplace ism that’s been ignored for years — ageism.” As the American population continues to age, recognizing and responding to ageism will become increasingly important — and not just in the workplace.

Ageism in Employment

It is unlawful to discriminate in employment on the ground that an employee is over the age of 40. Unfortunately, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is a relatively toothless law.

An employer that offers a legitimate reason for discharging, demoting, or taking another adverse action against an older employee will usually avoid liability, even if the reason is untrue. Business-friendly federal judges routinely dismiss age discrimination cases without giving juries a chance to decide whether the evidence of age discrimination is persuasive.

For example, by a 2-1 vote, the Eleventh Circuit recently upheld a summary judgment ruling dismissing a 54-year-old assistant county attorney’s complaint that he was fired because of his age. The lawyer who ran the department held a meeting in which she announced that she was “tired of looking at all these old people” and that she “wanted to hire baby lawyers in the law department.” 

Notwithstanding the boss’s clear articulation of an ageist bias and her decision to replace older lawyers with younger ones, the Eleventh Circuit decided that a jury couldn’t possibly find that her decision to fire a well-liked plaintiff was motivated by age because her ageist remarks were directed at the entire staff and not specifically at the lawyer she fired. The firing was supposedly justified by the lawyer’s decision to withdraw from a case, a decision that was approved seven months before the firing by the boss who then used it as an excuse to discharge the lawyer.

Federal judges have used summary judgment for years to take discrimination cases away from juries, largely because pro-employer judges fear that juries are sympathetic to employees. Judicial hostility to discrimination cases perpetuates ageism (as well as sexism and racism) in the workplace. 

Improving the ADEA

It might be easier to improve laws than to improve federal judges who enjoy lifetime job security. Still, it will be a daunting task for Congress to pass two legislative initiatives that would modestly strengthen the ability of older workers to oppose ageism.

The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWDA) would improve the ADEA by making it unlawful to base a discriminatory employment action on age, even if age was not the employer’s sole justification for taking the action. That change would apply the same standard to age discrimination that currently applies to gender and race discrimination.

The Protect Older Job Applicants (POJA) bill would extend the protections of the ADEA to job applicants. Again, that modification would align with laws that protect against other forms of discrimination. 

Both bills have passed the House. Whether either bill stands a chance of being passed by a divided Senate seems doubtful. Concerned Americans might nevertheless want to urge their senators to make passing the laws a high priority.

Stereotypes About Aging

Aging is a normal process that begins at birth and continues until death. While aging is associated with “natural changes in vision, hearing, mobility and muscle strength,” it is “distinct from disease and decline.” Seniors have varying degrees of health, functional status, and productivity. Yet a FrameWorks Institute analysis of differences between expert and public understandings of aging suggests that stereotypes drive public perceptions.

FrameWorks found that the public views aging “as a process of deterioration, dependency, reduced potential, family dispersal and digital incompetence.” Those stereotypes make the “process of aging something to be dreaded and fought against, rather than embraced as a process that brings new opportunities and challenges for individuals and society.” 

Ageism in Healthcare

Stereotypes about aging contribute to ageism in the healthcare system. Aging is a normal process, not a disease. Age is one of many risk factors for acquiring certain diseases, but older people do not automatically become ill or infirm simply because they have reached a magic age. Health experts are calling for old age to be removed as a cause or symptom of disease from the International Classification of Diseases, a reference work maintained by the World Health Organization and used by doctors worldwide to classify health conditions.

Other examples of ageism in healthcare include:

  • Speaking to older patients in oversimplified language and terms of endearment, as if the healthcare provider were speaking to an infant.
  • Failing to refer older patients for treatment of mental health conditions because the physician views the condition as a “normal” product of aging.
  • Basing recommendations of bedrest and nursing care on incorrect assumptions about the older patient’s mobility and ability to live independently.
  • Spending less time with older patients and showing less compassion for their conditions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that ageism in healthcare must be combatted by raising awareness in the medical community and in the public at large. Public education and efforts to bring different generations together can enhance empathy for all people while reducing reliance on stereotypes as a factor in medical decision-making.

That process begins when seniors understand that they are no less valuable than young people. Politely telling a doctor “I have an education, you don’t need to speak to me as if I were a child” may do more to awaken a doctor to stereotypical thinking than adding anti-ageist information as an afterthought at the end of a medical seminars.  

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