Theory of Age
Cliff Oswick and Patrice Rosenthal
Ageism is not simply another 'ism'. It is similar to other prominent forms of discrimination in so far as ageism, sexism and racism 'are three philosophies that we find offensive and which we would expect ordinary, liberal, tolerant, intelligent people to be against' ( Bytheway, 1995: 9). There are also, however, significant points of dissimilarity.
Age discrimination is both pervasive and dynamic. It is pervasive in that it is likely to affect everyone at some point or another during their life whether within or outside of the work context. Not everyone will have the same sort of direct personal exposure to either racism or sexism. It is dynamic because ageing and therefore ageism is an ongoing process of change. As Bytheway points out: 'With rare exceptions, the way in which we are affected by sexism and racism has a degree of continuity throughout our lives' ( 1995: 10). Someone who is born a woman does not slowly become a man or vice versa, equally a black person does not gradually become white, but a young person will gradually become an old person.Or as Bytheway succinctly puts it: 'No one is born old' ( 1995: 10).
Here we seek to challenge several taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of age discrimination in the workplace. There are three main parts to the chapter. In the first section, the predominant conceptualisation of ageism is outlined and the appropriateness of projecting contemporary theories of discrimination onto the phenomenon explored. In the second section, we report relevant results from an empirical study of employers' attitudes towards ageism. In the third and final part of the chapter, the critique of existing conceptualisations and the empirical findings are used as a basis for developing an alternative theory of age discrimination in employment.