Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Age Discrimination

I haven't written very much on this type of discrimination, even though it's something that the laws make illegal and even though the basis of defining it is very similar to the way other types of discrimination are defined in the labor markets or in education: To treat your membership in some demographic group (say, those over forty) as a sign of your general competence when in reality the two have no such simple relationship. An example of the kind of case that this might create:

The California Supreme Court will hear Google Co.'s appeal of a discrimination lawsuit filed by a 54-year-old manager who claims he was fired after a supervisor told him his opinions were "too old to matter."

A court of appeal in October ruled that a jury should determine if Brian Reid has evidence that Google routinely paid smaller bonuses and gave poorer performance reviews to older managers.

On Wednesday, the state high court said it would review that decision.

I have no way of judging how valid this specific suit is, of course. But it would be discriminatory to assume that a person's opinions were "too old" or that a person would be "too weak" or "too slow" or whatever, just on the basis of that person's age. For instance, it would be discriminatory to fire all workers in some physically demanding job at the age of fifty, without actually testing the strength of those workers.

There are reasons to believe that age discrimination might be quite common in firms, the main one being that older people have often been working for a firm longer and are earning higher salaries or wages. Whenever economic times are bad it would seem to make sense to get rid of those costing the most to the firm.

On the other hand, we are all growing older(unless we die first) and this would seem to make the use of age discrimination less likely than sex or race discrimination, say. After all, if it's common it might hit us in the future, so why not make it less common today?

The use of age as a proxy for all kinds of capabilities can run in the other direction, too. People can be judged to be too young for certain jobs or responsibilities, even if their actual abilities would suffice. But the increasing earnings over time mean that most age discrimination cases will be about older workers.

The intersection of age and gender may make age discrimination cases different for men and women. Older women tend to suffer from the extra judgment that they are not sufficiently eyecandyish. Getting rid of female newsreaders, when they age, seems to be fairly common, while the men are allowed to shrivel up on our screens.

Lots of little choppy thoughts here.