Age and Employment

ADECADE ago, advocates for older Americans envisioned a future in which people over the age of 55 would be increasingly valued as reliable, productive employees. By using public relations and education campaigns, they assumed that they could change stereotypes and negative attitudes about aging, encouraging employers to hire older workers in greater numbers.

But 10 years and millions of dollars later, those efforts have largely failed. Despite job fairs, seminars, advertisements, and even laws, job-seekers of a certain age find that old biases persist. At the same time, they discover that age discrimination is hard to prove.

The Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits employers from asking an applicant's age, except in cases when it constitutes a legitimate qualification for a job. Yet older job-seekers complain that interviewers skirt the law by using subtle tactics to obtain that information, asking such questions as ``When did you graduate?'' and ``May I see your driver's license?''

Part of the lingering problem can be traced to the recession. Studies by the American Association for Retired Persons show that older workers are hit hardest when companies downsize. What employers call ``voluntary early retirement'' is hardly voluntary for many over-50 employees, whose higher salaries make them easy targets when companies want to cut costs.

Exceptions exist, of course. Days Inn, Travelers Insurance, and Tiffany & Co. rank high on any list of employers who have made specific efforts to employ over-50 workers - and have benefited in the process. But a handful of exemplary companies cannot atone for the legions of other employers who cling to outdated images. At a time when books like Betty Friedan's ``The Coming of Age'' argue persuasively for the rich possibilities of later life, and when the examples of middle-aged and older people themselves attest to their ability and vitality, these attitudes have become indefensible.

Turning a corporate cold shoulder on maturity - either by laying off experienced people or refusing to hire or rehire them - constitutes a loss of incalculable magnitude for everyone.

During the 1980s, business leaders made significant progress in adopting ``family friendly'' policies to help working parents. Now, as the economy improves and hiring picks up, the corporate agenda for the 1990s needs to focus on becoming ``elder friendly'' by recognizing the significant contributions of midlife and older workers.

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