An interesting new study shows the subtle but ingrained bias against older people. As reported in this week’s New York Times, a psychological experiment showed participants videos of a man identified as Max, a white man wearing a checked shirt. The actors playing Max had two scripts for the video, differing only in one respect, whether they intended to be generous with their wealth. The people who saw Max’s video rated him on a positive to negative scale. Here’s the age discrimination twist: Some of the viewers saw a 25-year old Max, some saw a 45-year old Max, and some saw a 75-year old Max. The 75 year old who would not be inclined to share his riches with his relatives got high negative marks; no other age groups saw that difference.
As this article points out, there are two main difficulties in proving an age bias case. One is that people are not young or old (as opposed to male or female). We age over time, some of us look older or younger than our chronological years, and the age of our peers may be important in whether we are regarded as old in a given context. Experiments designed to show differences in treatment depending on race or gender often show stark differences; age attitudes are more subtle.
The second issue is the Supreme Court’s limitation on age discrimination bias cases four years ago, which raised the bar of proof that age was the “determining” factor causing the termination, demotion or other adverse action.
Nevertheless, age discrimination affects employment decisions, whether the decisionmaker is acting intentionally or does not perceive his or her own bias. As the article states,
“There is little doubt that such discrimination exists. When an older man or woman is laid off, it typically takes two to six months longer to find a new job than it takes younger workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the new job is likely to pay considerably less.”
Congress may have to fix the Supreme Court’s Gross decision. But rooting out ageism in our perceptions is going to take more effort. Fortunately, psychological and other research funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is ongoing, and perhaps some strategies for eliminating bias will emerge.