I am against trying to ‘legislate’ or ‘regulate’ good behavior. I
don’t think people respond very well to rules that are ‘good for
them’—whether it is anti-smoking legislation, ‘dietary’ packaging, or
sanctions on putting condom machines in high schools. People will, at
best, comply, but the underlying problems and cognitive blindness
persists for decades (if not forever). The result is institutionalized
secrecy, hypocrisy, black markets and lack of transparency in
government and everyday life.
Having said that, I also don’t think we can or should tolerate
public policies or corporate practices that undermine or violate our
constitutional liberties or standards of common decency. It is against
the law to discriminate people because of age. The numbers of Equal
Opportunity complaints against businesses is at an all-time high and
increasing dramatically. Discrimination isn’t new and is often deeply
embedded in corporate cultures. Yet, I wonder, why age discrimination?
In the past, one might argue that older people were inflexible,
infirm, perhaps slower than younger people, but this clearly is not the
case today when people in their 60s are more often than not as vital
and as capable as people in their 40s. I thought for a while that it
might be because of an ethic that the old needed to step aside to make
room for younger workers who have families and young children to care
for. But with almost 1/3 of the population approaching 60 in the coming
years, this doesn’t make much sense either. Perhaps the notion might be
that older workers are “short term” due to health risks or death, in
the same sense that we used to hear that discrimination against women
was justified because they could become pregnant and quit to raise
children. But this too doesn’t stand up in a world of constant
downsizing and an increasingly transient workforce.
I think that age-related discrimination is more like a bad
habit—it’s old thinking that hasn’t caught up with the realities of
today’s aging population. We are told the traditional retirement age
came into being when Kaiser Wilhelm created a retirement program for
his public service. He picked age 65 as the age at which people became
eligible for payments because the actuarial realities of his day
suggested that most would not live to collect on the promised pension.
The point is that age is a false distinction. We have
the opportunity to transform the culture of aging in general from one
of anticipating decline to one of possibility and choice. One of the
first areas where this transformation can show up is by elimination of
age discriminatory practices in the workplace.
This will not come to pass by attempts to enforce rules or create
new legislation. It will happen quickly and easily when a critical mass
of the 70 million ‘Baby Boomers’ say “No” to discrimination and “Yes”
to what we have to offer. If we don’t buy into the story of
discrimination based on age and if we simultaneously take
responsibility for it where it does exist, then we can be the agents
for change. We can transform our culture and create possibilities for
all workers—regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical
challenges and AGE.