The word “racism” appeared in the English language in 1936, modelled on the French “racisme”. In 1965, Pauline M. Leet introduced the word “sexist”, which gained currency after it was used in On Being Born Female by Caroline Bird. Since then, several other words that convey the idea of prejudice against specific groups have been added to the vocabulary. Xenophobia, genocide, ethnocide (destroying all the relics of a culture) and homophobia are examples.
The first decade of the 21st century saw the spread of the word “ageism”, which can be defined as discrimination against people of a certain age, especially old people who are regarded as infirm, senile and unsuitable for employment. The word was coined in 1969 by American gerontologist Robert N. Butler.
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With the demographic pattern of distribution between the old and young changing, there is bound to be a conflict of interest. Age rather than sex is today the most common form of discrimination at the workplace. Employers generally want to recruit young, energetic candidates. They justify their attitude by adducing several reasons.
One of the common reasons is that older workers may not be physically fit for demanding jobs. Second, they may be overqualified and this may tempt them to quit jobs. More importantly, they would have acquired certain skills and gained experience in certain functions that may not be relevant to the changing work environment. They may also lack experience in the digital world. All these factors contribute to ageist discrimination in the office.
As early as 1967, the US Congress declared discrimination against employees above 40 illegal by passing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The Act protects workers from age-based prejudice during recruitment, training, promotions, benefits, layoffs and retirement. The Act permits the prescription of an age limit if the job requires total physical fitness, such as for fire-fighters, airline pilots or the police.
In October 2006, the European Union (EU) passed legislation that sought to guarantee the basic rights of older workers. The directive makes it illegal for a job advertisement to specify an age limit; it is illegal to ask for the candidate’s date of birth.
Discrimination in the office has led employees to seek remedy in court. Here are some relevant cases:
An Australian airline was ordered by a Queensland court to pay compensation to eight women, six of them above 36, who were rejected, though they had relevant job experience. In the interview, they had to write and perform a dance number.
In a case generally known as the Heyday case, a voluntary body called Age Concern, through its associate Heyday, challenged the mandatory retirement of employees at the age of 65 permitted by UK regulations. The case started in 2006 and came up before the European Court of Justice. The court did not strike down the default retirement age, but ruled that member states can allow age discrimination of this kind if it is “a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate social policy objective”. It is expected that ultimately compulsory retirement will be disallowed or a higher retirement age will be specified.
The next case is even more curious. The widow of one Bartsch, employed with Bosch-Siemens, sent her claim for survivor’s pension. But the German pension scheme has an age-gap provision. It prevents a widow or widower from receiving a survival pension if the survivor is more than 15 years older or younger than the deceased employee. Here, the age gap was 21 years. Obviously, the case related to age discrimination. But the court found that the period allowed for the implementation of the EU directive had not expired and at the time of the trial, the Bartsch case was outside the EU’s purview.
The anti-ageism movement is clearly gaining strength in most developed countries. The Economist has described the situation as a slow-burning fuse. An English newspaper called it a “ticking time bomb”, and alerted businesses to “the pitfalls of failing to be prepared for new age discrimination laws”. With a shrinking young generation and growing old generation, companies should learn to tap the potential of the older section of job seekers. Older workers can bring their experience, wisdom and work culture to the workplace.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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