Age Discrimination -- the Subtlest Bias

Article excerpt

WHEN the American Association of Retired Persons recently surveyed more than a thousand adults about their attitudes on aging, they asked participants to define "old." The average answer was 63 for a man and 62 for a woman.

Then AARP asked teenagers the same question, and the numbers dropped precipitously. Men, the teens declared, are old at 50, women at 45.

It would be comforting to dismiss these figures as the naive misperceptions of youth. Yet if trends in the workplace are any measure of deep-seated stereotypes, "old" can be a lot younger than most people would like to think. Some employers' attitudes, in fact, appear to run disturbingly parallel to those of teenagers.

Job counselors find that age-based discrimination sometimes begins as early as 40 for women and 45 for men.

Agencies serving midlife job-seekers typically define "older workers" as those 45 and up.

And in an era of widespread restructuring, it is employees in their 40s and 50s -- those the teenagers regard as old -- who receive the biggest financial incentives to leave. Replace mature workers with younger, less expensive staff members, the reasoning goes, and the bottom line will improve.

The youth trend also becomes evident in age-discrimination lawsuits. Last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 17,000 such suits. That compares with 14,500 in 1990 and 19,300 in 1992.

In one of the latest cases, four former employees of Chevron Corporation in San Francisco last month accused the company of replacing long-term workers with college students and summer trainees. The four, all accountants in their 40s and 50s with excellent records, charge that age was a "substantial and determining factor" in the company's decision to lay them off.

One of the group's lawyers also accuses Chevron of maintaining a policy of "out with the old, in with the new." The company is refusing comment.

Last week, in Hackensack, N.J., a former TV anchor sued station WWOR-TV for firing her. At 43, Sara Lee Kessler, an Emmy Award-winner, claims executives regarded her as too old for the station's youthful format. …