Tuesday Dec 12 2006
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.