Age discrimination occurs when an older person is pressured in the workplace to leave. Under the law a person’s career cannot be jeopardized solely because of age. Unfortunately, many employers resort to subtler but equally damaging tactics to thin the ranks of older workers. Today, “older worker” can mean anyone over the age of 40. Employees who fall into this group need to understand their rights under the law; this way, if they suspect discrimination, they can take appropriate action.
Until the early twentieth century discrimination based on age was not a clear-cut issue in most professions, Most people worked until they reached an age at which they were no longer able to be productive. For the remainder of their lives they would be taken care of by their families.
With the rise in industrialization and in unions, specific guidelines were set in place for how long people should stay on the job. The introduction of pension programs allowed workers the opportunity to stop working when they reached old age, secure in the knowledge that they would be able to take care of themselves financially. Later, government initiatives such as Social Security made it still easier for people to retire.
Beginning after World War II, dramatic changes in the workplace created a shift in policies and attitudes. Technology had made many jobs obsolete, and employees had to learn more and learn faster. As the postwar “baby boom” generation came of age, a growing emphasis on youth pervaded an increasingly crowded workplace. People who had reached old or even middle age began to face increasing pressure to leave the workforce. Sometimes they were simply forced out. Older workers who happen to be women or members of a minority group have to be particularly diligent, since they could be subject to discrimination on additional factors.
Discrimination of any kind is determined by either direct or indirect evidence under the law. Direct evidence can include outright statements an employer makes about a particular job candidate that shows intent to exclude. Indirect evidence can be when an employer makes job qualifications vague enough to exclude certain people even though everything looks legal and ethical. In age discrimination cases, direct evidence would be an employer telling an older worker, “You’re doing that job much more slowly than the others,” or “I don’t think you’ll be able to learn our new computer system.” Indirect evidence would be when a potential employer turns down a qualified older job applicant in favor of some-one younger. Of course, if the younger employee is demonstrably better qualified, it may not be a case of discrimination. But if, for example, a qualified older worker is passed over for a job and the employer continues to interview other candidates, the employer may be deliberately excluding the older candidate.