To mark the 50th anniversary of the US Age Discrimination in Employment Act coming into force, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a report into age discrimination at work.
In a statement, acting EEOC Chair Victoria A. Lipnic said,
“As we've studied the current state of age discrimination this past year in commemorating the ADEA, we've seen many similarities between age discrimination and harassment. Like harassment, everyone knows it happens every day to workers in all kinds of jobs, but few speak up. It's an open secret.”
Background to the ADEA
Congres considered legislating against age discrimination in the early 60s, but the amendments which would have brought it into force failed to pass. Instead, Congress directed the then Secretary of Labor W. Williard Wirtz to make a "full and complete study of the factors which may tend to result in discrimination in employment because of age".
The subsequent “Wirtz report” found that age limits were routinely used by employers to ban those aged 45 or older from employment. Some employers would even ban those aged over 25 years of age. President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed legislation based on the recommendations of the Wirtz report and the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was eventually enacted by congress in 1967, coming into force on 12 June 1968. Coming at the time of the civil rights movement, the ADEA became law alongside the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Over the subsequent years, the ADEA has been amended. But one central feature of the US’s federal age discrimination legislation remains: it only protects those aged 40 or over. This means that someone aged under 40 cannot claim age discrimination if they were treated less
For more on age discrimination law in the US, go to our international age discrimination section.
What does the EEOC’s report say?
The labour market
The EEOC’s report notes that the workforce of 1967 looked very different than it does today. Many men worked jobs for life and would retire at early ages with generous pensions. Only a third of workers were women. Many of the jobs worked by men were physically tough, perhaps explaining why life expectancy was just 67 for men compared to 74 for women. Today's US labour force is very different. It has doubled in size, is older, more diverse, more educated, and more female than it was 50 years ago.
In the United States, the 65-and-over population will nearly double over the next three decades to 88 million by 2050 from 48 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.By 2024, one in four U.S. workers will be 55 or older, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than double the rate in 1994 when 55-plus workers accounted for just 12 percent of the workforce.
The Wirtz report noted that, in 1965, older workers were more likely to be employed in coal mining, agriculture, and railroads, and in older manufacturing industries such as textiles, leather, apparel, footwear, and food. Today workers aged 55 and older are employed across many types of occupations.
The EEOC’s report states that unfounded assumptions about age and ability continue to drive age discrimination at work, Research demonstrates that most people still have negative beliefs about ageing, and that those beliefs are often not supported by facts. As the EEOC’s report makes clear, just because someone is older it does not mean that they are less physically capable than someone young. Whilst in general we can say that physical fitness declines with age, individual physical fitness varies massively. Genetics, lifestyle and fitness all impact someone’s physical abilities.
Prevalence of age discrimination
More than 6 in 10 workers age 45 and older say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Of those, 90 percent say it is somewhat or very common, according to a 2017 survey. In another survey in 2015, more than 3 of 4 older workers said their age was an obstacle to finding a job.
African Americans/Blacks report much higher rates of having experienced age discrimination or knowing someone who had, at 77 percent, compared to 61 percent for Hispanics/Latinos and 59 percent for Whites. More women than men also say older workers face age discrimination.
Underreporting of age discrimination
This is a big issue. While most older workers say they have seen or experienced age discrimination, only 3 percent report having made a formal complaint to someone in the workplace or to a government agency.
The ADEA was a trailblazing piece of legislation. Still today, many countries around the world do not have any age discrimination laws. It was truly ahead of its time.
Yet – if we are to believe the claim that just 3% of those suffering age discrimination actually report it – there is clearly more work to be done.