When boomers grow up

The same group that insisted on a glorification of youth will likely become the driving force behind greater tolerance of age.

The baby boomers, now making their way past middle age, will want to work longer, and they will make more noise if they encounter age discrimination along the way.

In the meantime, however, older workers are less likely to get hired and more likely to get fired than their younger counterparts.

"I don't think things generally have gotten better," says John Migliaccio, president of Maturity Mark Services Company, an older-worker publishing and consulting firm in White Plains, N.Y. "It has remained the same, which is not good to begin with."

And age-discrimination suits have become harder to prove. Since the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, employers with more than 20 workers can no longer hire or fire workers because of their age.

But a 1993 Supreme Court decision requires workers to prove employer discrimination based on age stereotypes - not just age itself.

Thus, an increasing number of courts rule in favor of firms that, for example, let older workers go because they're eligible for retirement benefits. Since the firms discriminate on the basis of benefits, not age stereotypes, they're not liable, the reasoning goes.

"Even the slam-dunk cases are no longer slam dunks," says Laurie McCann, staff attorney with the American Association of Retired Persons in Washington, D.C.

The number of age-discrimination suits filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has fallen by nearly 25 percent since 1993.

Soon, the burgeoning economy may elbow age-bias out of the workplace. Employers starved for workers will have no choice but to hire older Americans, especially as their ranks and political clout swell in the next decade, experts predict.

So far, though, only a few companies go out of their way to hire older workers because of the qualities they bring to the job.

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