Jim Crow and Age Discrimination

 “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.  Edmund Burke.

This quote was sent to me by a reader and encapsulates the real problem with the epidemic of age discrimination in America today.  Our elected representatives and federal judges, who ultimately are responsible for ensuring equal justice for all Americans, choose to look the other way when employers engage in age discrimination.  The result is that a class of Americans is subjected to arbitrary and systemic discrimination in the workplace that robs them of, among other things, their ability to earn a living and retire with dignity.

This is reminiscent of the era of Jim Crow but it involves age, not race. Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enacted after the Civil War that had the effect of mandating racial segregation in all public facilities in the South.  In my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workforce, I show that older workers are literally second-class citizens under the law.

The major law protecting older workers, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court.  As a result, older workers are subjected to wholesale and targeted terminations, long-term unemployment due to epidemic and overt age discrimination in hiring and, finally, they are forced into low-wage or temp work until they can age into an early retirement that will reduce their Social Security benefit by at least 25%  for the rest of their lives.

Age discrimination has nothing to do with ability or merit. It’s about perception. It’s attributable to ignorance and prejudice – both conscious and unconscious – perpetuated by false and harmful stereotypes, fear of aging, and animus between that generations which is fueled by America’s staggering wealth inequality.   And, of course, it exists because of  the failure of  the supposedly good people to act.

I have no intention of diminishing the horror that is evident in the history of race discrimination in America.  Age discrimination is  different. Older people aren’t lynched. They’re put in drawers and forgotten. And age discrimination in the workplace is just the beginning. The problem also is evident in for-profit nursing homes, where old people are labelled, sedated, and neglected until they fade away. By the way, there is a strong correlation between poverty in old age and race.

Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish statesman; author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher. He isn’t the only one to observe that evil thrives when good people do nothing. More recently, Martin Luther King said: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”