Will Ageism End Soon?
Data suggests there is no reason to believe it will.
Posted December 5, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Many companies have embraced the idea that “doing good” is good for everyone.
- Making workforces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive has become a big part of corporate social responsibility.
- Older workers have been notably excluded from the humanization of Big Business.
- Data suggests that instances of ageism have only increased in recent years.
Corporate America, or "Big Business" if you prefer, has much to be proud of. For more than a century, companies provided jobs to millions of Americans, fueling the economy and helping create the consumer-driven American way of life. After World War II, many corporations became international in scope, propelling the United States to become the richest and most powerful civilization in history.
At the same time, Big Business has not been a particularly good citizen. Trusts and monopolies were common in the late 19th century, and over the decades the government found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to increasingly regulate what was intended to be a laissez-faire or free-market economy. By the greed-is-good 1980s, Wall Street was responsible for all kinds of illegal shenanigans, and many companies found clever ways to avoid paying taxes.
This could perhaps have been expected, given the guiding ethos that corporations were solely dedicated to increasing profits for the benefit of their employees and shareholders. (See superstar economist Milton Friedman’s classic 1970 essay “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” for more on that.) Yet this pursuit also included Corporate America’s deliberate, successful, and inexcusable mission of keeping its hallowed halls free of women, people of color, and even people of certain ethnicities now considered "white." It wasn’t until the late 1960s that these groups began making inroads into the Old (and almost exclusively WASPish) Boys’ Club, a pursuit that continues to this day.
In the wake of the recent #MeToo and Black Lives Matter social movements, it seems that Corporate America has begun to toss Friedman’s essay into the dustbin of history by recognizing that Big Business has a greater social responsibility than increasing its profits. Purpose has entered the equation, meaning that many companies have embraced the idea that “doing good” is good for everyone, including themselves. Making workforces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive is a big part of this, of course, a sign that some corporations finally understand that their ultimate mission is about people rather than profits.
Sadly, older workers have been notably excluded from this long-overdue humanization of Big Business. “While research shows bias around sexuality and race has declined precipitously over the last 12 years, the one area where unconscious bias has barely shifted is ageism,” Sheila Callaham wrote in Forbes in 2019, citing a 2015 EEOC study that found only 8 percent of companies with diversity and inclusion strategies included age.
Counter to the trend towards corporate social responsibility, things are going from bad to worse with regard to age discrimination in the workplace. “Older workers in the U.S. are reporting higher levels of discrimination at work than ever before,” Stephanie Russell-Kraft wrote for Business Insider in June of this year. She cited an AARP study showing that 78 percent of older workers saw or experienced age discrimination in 2020, compared with 61 percent in 2018.
Even one case of age discrimination would be too many, yet more than 67,000 such charges were filed in 2020, according to the EEOC. That number, however, is a small fraction of what actually takes place in the hiring and firing process. Filing a suit is not only time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally exhausting but, because of the courts’ high bar to prove it, often not successful.
I and many others have explained at length why ageism, especially that in the workplace, remains what has been called the “last openly tolerated form of discrimination.” None of these efforts (for me, three books, dozens of blog posts, and a bunch of presentations) appears to have had any effect, as the numbers above show. The data suggests there is no reason to believe that ageism will end anytime soon, if ever.
DEI and HR folks serve as the gatekeepers to Corporate America and thus could end ageism in the workplace if they and their bosses chose to do so. Discrimination against any group of people based on a physical characteristic or biological trait—skin color, body parts, or gray hair and wrinkles—should be considered an unamerican activity, i.e., contrary to the nation’s democratic ideals expressed by the Founding Fathers. Thus, I argue that Corporate America will never be truly American until it demonstrates that all men and women, regardless of their age, are created equal.
Samuel, Lawrence R. (2021). Age Friendly: Ending Ageism in America. New York: Routledge.