Like racism, age discrimination comes from stereotypical thinking that's not based on fact and involves broad generalizations about people without knowing much about them as individuals. Ageism is also fear-based: young people may see a gray-haired senior stepping carefully down the sidewalk, and they're seeing their future self (if they're lucky enough to live that long) and worrying whether their old age will be difficult.
In the workplace, age discrimination can be hard to define or pinpoint because it's subtle. It may be something as simple as not being invited along for drinks after work. Or it may be something as serious as being passed over for a promotion and watching as the job you wanted goes to a less qualified junior.
Living here in the United States, we see a youth-obsessed culture all around us. But like just about every industrialized nation, this country is in truth experiencing low birth rates along with an aging but still productive workforce.
Here are some more facts:
- In 15 years, more than 20% of the industrialized world will be over 65.
- Baby boomers comprise 29% of the U.S. population, and many will continue to work well into their 70s.
- Social Security actuaries have testified before Congress that workers are living longer, healthier lives and should remain at their jobs for years beyond the traditional retirement age of 62 to 70.
The usual perception is that we can't afford all these old people, says Dr. Robert Butler, head of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institute of Health and founder of the International Longevity Center. He's also a Pulitzer Prize-winning author on books about aging, including his most recent The Longevity Prescription: The 8 Proven Keys to a Long Healthy Life.
"That's very negative and ageist," Dr. Butler says about the usual perception, noting that people who stay in the workforce can contribute longer to the solvency of Social Security. And the longer they live, he says, the more they will help boost the U.S. gross domestic product. (Already, baby boomers are differing from their elders because they continue to consume goods and services at a steady rate even after retirement.)
Dr. Butler also says that older employees should be alert to age discrimination in the workplace. If you believe you're being discriminated against at work, find out what you can do about it from the Association for the Advancement of Reitred Persons (AARP) legal office or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
And remember, if you're young and reading this, someday you'll be old, too. And if on some find day in the future you're walking down the sidewalk, feeling fit and of sound mind, and a speedy young person whips past you impatiently as if to say, "out of my way, you old thing," you may be thinking to yourself, "but I'm not old at all."