Age Discrimination -- The Subtlest Bias

WHEN the American Association of Retired Persons recently surveyed more than a thousand adults about their attitudes on aging, they asked participants to define ''old.'' The average answer was 63 for a man and 62 for a woman.

Then AARP asked teenagers the same question, and the numbers dropped precipitously. Men, the teens declared, are old at 50, women at 45.

It would be comforting to dismiss these figures as the naive misperceptions of youth. Yet if trends in the workplace are any measure of deep-seated stereotypes, ''old'' can be a lot younger than most people would like to think. Some employers' attitudes, in fact, appear to run disturbingly parallel to those of teenagers.

Job counselors find that age-based discrimination sometimes begins as early as 40 for women and 45 for men.

Agencies serving midlife job-seekers typically define ''older workers'' as those 45 and up.

And in an era of widespread restructuring, it is employees in their 40s and 50s -- those the teenagers regard as old -- who receive the biggest financial incentives to leave. Replace mature workers with younger, less expensive staff members, the reasoning goes, and the bottom line will improve.

The youth trend also becomes evident in age-discrimination lawsuits. Last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 17,000 such suits. That compares with 14,500 in 1990 and 19,300 in 1992.

In one of the latest cases, four former employees of Chevron Corporation in San Francisco last month accused the company of replacing long-term workers with college students and summer trainees. The four, all accountants in their 40s and 50s with excellent records, charge that age was a ''substantial and determining factor'' in the company's decision to lay them off.

One of the group's lawyers also accuses Chevron of maintaining a policy of ''out with the old, in with the new.'' The company is refusing comment.

Last week, in Hackensack, N.J., a former TV anchor sued station WWOR-TV for firing her. At 43, Sara Lee Kessler, an Emmy Award-winner, claims executives regarded her as too old for the station's youthful format. The station has made no public statement about the case.

Ms. Kessler's suit is reminiscent of one filed a dozen years ago by Christine Craft, then an anchorwoman for a Kansas City television station. After being told that she was ''too old, too ugly, and not sufficiently deferential to men,'' the 39-year-old Ms. Craft was fired. Although she initially won $500,000 in a suit against the station, three male judges later overturned that award.

Will the time come when the unwritten beauty-queen requirements for television anchors become less stringent? More than a few airline passengers can remember when similar demands existed for flight attendants -- then called stewardesses -- who had to ''retire'' at the ripe old age of 28. They could not wear glasses. They had to stay within certain height and weight limits. And they could not marry, although some did, secretly.

Today those rules seem laughable, as flight attendants with decades of experience, graying hair, and a few extra pounds ably serve passengers alongside much younger colleagues.

Yet even in business, where no such demands for youthful good looks exist, the penalties for added candles on a birthday cake can sometimes be severe. Displaced midlife workers who bravely file age-discrimination suits often find litigation dragging on for years, draining a family's savings accounts and emotions.

It would be contrary to rules of good business to make younger workers bear the whole burden of downsizing. Organizations need a mixture of ages and levels of experience. But to the extent that older workers' names appear disproportionately often on layoff lists, seniority, once seen as a virtue, is being punished.

When age is made the criterion, there can be no perfect balance. Yet if rock stars in their 50s like Mick Jagger can still be revered by the culture, including those teenagers in the AARP survey, perhaps corporate executives can show at least a measure of respect toward those now penalized for being contemporaries of the Rolling Stones.

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