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The Aging Rights Movement

Why we should rebrand ageism as a human rights issue.

Key points

  • Ageism is prevalent in American society, especially in the workplace.
  • Ageism does not get as much attention as discrimination based on race or gender.
  • Elevating ageism to a human rights issue may yield greater results.

In 1968, Robert Butler coined the term “ageism” to describe the institutional discrimination being directed against older Americans. In attaching an “ism” to age, Butler consciously and astutely drew a parallel with two other “Isms” of the time—racism and sexism. Ageism was analogous to the discrimination people of color and women were facing, he correctly argued, hoping that an aging rights movement would emerge in the wake of the civil rights and gender rights movements of the late sixties.

A half-century and change later, Butler’s bold and forward-thinking idea has not come to be. The civil rights movement and the second-wave feminist movement have each resulted in major gains, with the rights of both people of color and women now much closer to those of white men than they were in 1968. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but further strides are being made via the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements.

The same cannot be said to be true of an aging rights movement. People of age have made little if any progress since Butler’s trailblazing initiative, as any glance at contemporary American society makes plainly clear. Older adults are openly discriminated against as workers, as consumers, and in everyday life, so much so that they can be legitimately considered second-class citizens. If an alien visited the United States today, he, she, or it might wonder why younger and older humans were often not seen together.

We usually don’t think of segregation in terms of age, but it is sadly a fact of life in this country. Based on his research, Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer made the rather startling claim in the June 6, 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review that contemporary America was “the most age-segregated society that’s ever been,” the result of many different and divisive decisions made in education, work, and housing over the course of a century. For Marc Freedman and Trent Stamp, this lack of contact between generations has bred “widespread ageism rooted in stereotypes,” they wrote in that same issue, and the proof is in the pudding.

For me, it is the workplace that represents the most egregious example of ageist segregation. While concerted efforts have been made to make organizations more diverse, equitable, and inclusive in terms of race and gender, virtually no such effort has been made with regard to age. Our said alien might conclude that with some notable exceptions (usually people referred to as “bosses”) only humans under the age of 50 were legally allowed to hold managerial jobs at larger companies. People 50 or older comprised more than a third of the population, the extra-terrestrial's report might state, but just a tiny fraction could be found at a place often called “the office.”

Why is this so? Why does Big Business openly and overtly discriminate against older employees in both their hiring and firing practices? More important, why do we allow this to continue? Discrimination based on any physical attribute, whether it be skin color, body composition, or longevity, is not just unethical and illegal but a violation of an American citizen’s inalienable rights as expressed in our Declaration of Independence. Even more broadly, such a form of oppression is an infringement upon the basic rights of a human being, something the United Nations has noted in its approach to ending global ageism.

This has to change. As Americans, it’s our responsibility to address injustices based on the appearance of an individual. This is what we are about and how we’re different from all other countries. Biology should not be used as a criterion in choosing which person is best for a particular job, a premise that HR and even DEI people (or their age-detecting bots) routinely ignore in their screening of job candidates. The vast majority of CEOs have admitted that they do not address age in their DEI initiatives; 92 percent of them said as much in a 2015 Annual Global CEO survey commissioned by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In a couple of decades, I think that we will look back on age segregation as a shameful and embarrassing episode in our nation’s history. With regard to work, I believe that HR and DEI people of the future will consider the sins of their predecessors much like how we now view the racist and misogynist ways of past generations of “personnel managers.”

Until then, it’s our duty as American citizens to try to fulfill Robert Butler’s vision of an aging rights movement grounded in the basic human right of equality.