Publisher's Perspective

The federal government officially outlawed age discrimination in the workplace 50 years ago and therefore it is now nothing but a distant memory.

We now pause for the laughter to die down.

Unfortunately, it is still with us—as are a number of other forms of bias also outlawed around the same time, not incidentally—according to the very agency that enforces the law in the federal workplace as in other workplaces, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed in 1967 but its effective date was put off until June of the following year. The law barred discrimination on grounds of age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment; barred retaliation for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on age or for filing an age discrimination charge; and generally barred including age preferences in job notices.

Protection against bias on the basis of advanced age was an admirable foresight in a nation awash with young baby boomers. However, “After 50 years of a federal law whose purpose is to promote the employment of older workers based on ability, age discrimination remains too common and too accepted,” says an EEOC report. “Despite decades of research finding that age does not predict ability or performance, employers often fall back on precisely the ageist stereotypes the ADEA was enacted to prohibit.”

While quantifying age discrimination is difficult—in part because, like other forms of discrimination it often is not formally reported—“the perception that age discrimination exists in our workplaces is prevalent,” it said. It cited a recent survey finding that more than 6 in 10 workers age 45 and older say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace and of those, 90 percent say it is somewhat or very common.

This most frequently takes the form of unlawful firing, harassment, discriminatory terms of employment and discriminatory discipline, said the assessment of the nationwide workforce whose findings should be of special concern in the generally older federal workforce.

For those who don’t have a job and are looking at an older age—such as in the common scenario of a federal employee who retires relatively young and wishes to continue working—things can be even worse. In another survey cited in the report, more than 3 of 4 older workers said their age was an obstacle to finding a job. It also cited studies that have documented age discrimination by employers as reflected by the share of job applicants who are called for an interview when applications contained an age, versus those that were age-neutral. Employers also have been found to be signaling a preference for younger workers by stating that “digital natives” are needed.

More on Employment Discrimination in the Federal Government at ask.FEDweek.com

This is all happening as the American workforce ages. Those young baby boomers of 50 years ago are now all at least age 54 and even all of the generation behind them, the so-called Generation X, are past the age 40 threshold where protection begins. Just in the latter half of those 50 years, the share of workers age 55 and older has doubled, and the cohort of workers age 65 or older is projected to grow by 75 percent by 2050, while the group of workers age 25 to 54 is only expected to grow by 2 percent.

That trend is especially clear in the federal workforce, where the average age is 47.5, and only 29 percent are under 40.

“Today’s experienced workers are healthier, more educated, and working and living longer than previous generations. Age-diverse teams and workforces can improve employee engagement, performance, and productivity,” the EEOC said.

However, “Unfounded assumptions about age and ability continue to drive age discrimination in the workplace. Research on ageist stereotypes demonstrates that most people have specific negative beliefs about aging and that most of those beliefs are inaccurate. These stereotypes often may be applied to older workers, leading to negative evaluations and/or firing, rather than coaching or retraining.”

And even worse: “Research shows that stereotypes are tenacious and it takes generations to change a stereotype.”

It’s been two generations already. The bulge of people who want or need to keep working longer has arrived and is still growing. They don’t have another generation to wait.