History of Age Discrimination

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  • 0:05 What is Age Discrimination?
  • 0:54 Origins of Age Discrimination
  • 2:30 What is the ADEA?
  • 3:33 Amendments of the ADEA
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Discrimination is not limited to race or sex. In this lesson, we'll talk about the history of age discrimination and see what the law has to say about this issue today.

What is Age Discrimination?

Discrimination comes in a diverse variety of sizes and shapes, unfortunately (and somewhat ironically). While we often hear about laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, or religion, there is another important attribute that needs to be talked about, too. Age discrimination is the application of prejudicial or biased opinions against a person based solely on this person's age.

Have you ever heard that old people can't drive, people over 60 can't work as hard, or that senior citizens get tired too easily? These statements are examples of age discrimination. Like all forms of discrimination, it's something we want to keep out of our business, government, and society. So how do we do it? After all, discrimination is one of the oldest faults of human societies.

Discrimination exists in all forms

Origins of Age Discrimination

Age discrimination has existed throughout American history, and really throughout most of history in general, but like other forms of discrimination, it was considered a normal part of life until after World War II. Changes in social expectations and ideas led to a wave of reform, championed by the civil rights movement that pushed to end segregation. Racial discrimination was prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which opened up the floodgates of awareness for unequal employment situations.

After 1964, as Congress was starting to pay attention to the ways that prejudice and stereotypes impacted people's economic opportunities, it became aware of the fact that many people over a certain age were victims of discrimination. Widely-accepted stereotypes of elderly workers prevented their promotion or kept them from getting new opportunities. Congress asked the Secretary of Labor to compile a report on this issue, and the results were astounding. Applicants over 45 were barred from a quarter of available jobs in the private sector based on age alone. Applicants over 55 were barred from half of job openings, and applicants over 65 had almost no statistical chance of finding work. Other examples demonstrated that age discrimination was a problem throughout American society. For example, it was found that airlines were forcing female flight attendants into retirement by age 30 in order to maintain a younger, more attractive flight crew. Congress decided to act, quickly passing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA).

What is the ADEA?

So, what exactly did the ADEA do? In basic terms, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 stated that employers had to ignore age in hiring and promotion decisions. This was similar to the way that the Civil Rights Act banned hiring decisions based on race. The act originally applied only to applicants between the ages of 40 and 70. This act is still enforced, monitored, and regulated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

However, there is one notable exception to the ADEA. Employers may refuse to hire or promote someone based on age if they can demonstrate a bona fide occupational qualification. Yes, that's what it's really called. Basically, age qualifies for a BFOQ exemption if the work is deemed unsafe for people of a certain age. For example, jobs requiring hazardous working conditions may refuse to hire someone over a certain age, since advanced age may create safety risks to that person or others.

A BFOQ job is one in which age may be a legitimate safety concern

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