An elderly woman, center, uses a walking frame. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg  

When It Comes to Ageism, the Old Is New Again

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In recent months, employees at Google, Intel and IBM have sued for age discrimination, part of a growing chorus of voices alleging a pervasive culture of ageism throughout the tech industry.

There’s nothing innovative about such practices. Twenty-first century tech companies may be acting much like the now-antiquated cutting-edge industries that pioneered age discrimination more than a century ago. Then, as now, employers willfully ignored the fact that older workers are generally just as competent as younger ones — sometimes more so.

In the U.S., the historical record offers scant evidence of workers getting laid off at 40 and up. But that’s largely because most men didn’t live all that long: prior to the 1870s, for example, the average life expectancy of white males hovered somewhere in the 40s. Few corporations bothered to impose mandatory retirement ages.

But as several historians have noted, age discrimination became a widespread phenomenon after the 1870s. In 1870, life expectancy stood at a miserable 39 years for white men. Still, that was only the average, and enough men lived considerably longer. Indeed, 80.6 percent of men over the age of 65 still had a job at this time.

Yet by 1910, that number had dropped to 63.7 percent, despite the fact that life expectancy for white males rose to 48 in the intervening years. Age discrimination got worse at precisely the moment more men started living longer.

Blue-collar workers were at a particular disadvantage as new technologies supplanted older, slower methods of production. In typesetting, for example, the new Linotype machine required fast fingers and excellent vision. Employers used the change to justify firing older workers.

Legislative limits on the length of the workday also encouraged age discrimination. After a growing number of states compelled some industries to limit workdays to nine hours, companies pushed workers to become more productive to compensate. Many employers quickly cut older workers, arguing that they could not keep up with the new pace of work.

The companies may have had a point under very specific circumstances, such as jobs involving heavy lifting. But the era’s survival-of-the-fittest economic ethos tended to reinforce an irrational prejudice against older workers. Indeed, many prominent thinkers preached the virtues of ageism. In 1905, for example, William Osler, who helped found Johns Hopkins Medical School, delivered a farewell address that made national headlines for its blithe dismissal of the older generation of workers.

Osler, who was 56, lamented the “comparative uselessness of men over 40 years of age,” and argued that all men should be forced to stop working at 60. He half-jokingly suggested that after a year of retirement, all such men should be dispatched with a lethal dose of chloroform. (Osler failed to take his own advice, lingering on until the age of 70 — but his address seems to have been aimed at ordinary laborers, not elites like him.)

While Osler’s speech provoked outrage, it captured a growing skepticism about older workers. That same year, a group of disaffected older workers — many of them military veterans — founded the Anti Age Limit League, which sought to fight what it called “age ostracism” encountered by men over the age of 45. 

The New York Times greeted the news with skepticism. In a blunt editorial, it expressed compassion for any 40-something put out to pasture, but then pointed out that the “average of all native whites at death is 36, so that those who are working at 45 appear to be working on another man’s time.” Ouch.

Few men — and even fewer women — had pensions or access to government welfare programs that might have mitigated age discrimination. Yet discrimination grew more pervasive in the opening decades of the 20th-century, even as the life expectancy of both men and women lengthened still further.

In the late 1920s, a survey by the National Association of Manufacturers found that a third of all manufacturing establishments had age limits, with unskilled workers commonly terminated at age 45; skilled workers such as machinists, by contrast, were shown the door after turning 50.

This struck a growing number of economic thinkers as foolish and shortsighted. As James Davis, the Republican secretary of labor observed in 1928, growing mechanization and automation had leveled the playing field: “Where machines do so much and the workers so little, the worker of 60 becomes as able as the one of 20, with the added value of a tendency to stick to the job.”

The Great Depression moved the debate over age discrimination to the center of public attention. Companies struggling to cope with the disaster laid off older workers in droves, many of them married men with families to support. In response, economists on the federal and state level began gathering statistics on the scope of the problem.

What they found was unsettling. In Massachusetts, researchers found that in a survey of six chain stores in the late 1930s, employers hired 1,600 new men, but only 54 of these were over the age of 45. Other studies found comparable levels of discrimination in other industries, with women particularly suffering. An AT&T executive questioned by a legislative panel in New York conceded that although he had recently hired 900 women, only one was over 40.

When pressed before legislative committees, they often professed a willingness to take back older workers whom they had laid off at the height of the crisis, but they generally refused to hire what one employer in New York disdainfully described as “another fellow’s discarded workers.” This sentiment conveniently ignored the fact that many of those discarded workers had accumulated vast amounts of experience that younger workers lacked.

In 1939, President Roosevelt waded into the debate, calling for an end to age discrimination. But the growing movement for reform was derailed by the outbreak of World War II. The conflict created such a labor shortage that the problem temporarily disappeared.

Only in the postwar era did the problem led to legislative intervention. Massachusetts had been the first to pass a measure, in 1937, but in 1950 it amended the law, giving it more teeth. New York followed suit in 1958. Studies in these states showed that job advertisements no longer made illegal references to age requirements, even if covert discrimination continued.

In 1964, activists eager to end age discrimination took their case to the federal level. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned other forms of discrimination, opened the door to reform. Although that legislation did not address age discrimination, it directed the Secretary of Labor to study the problem. The resulting report found pervasive evidence of age discrimination: Half of the nation’s employers imposed age limits in hiring people.

Significantly, the report found that while discriminating on the basis of age could be justified under certain circumstances — the physical demands of the job, for example, or fears about the costs of pensions and benefits — many companies discriminated because they continued to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that older workers could not do their job as well as their more youthful peers.

The findings spurred Congress to pass the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in 1967. Since that time, most employers have been far more careful not to discriminate against older workers, even if the practice continues. 

The tech sector, by contrast, has shown no such caution. The words that Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg blurted out not too long ago — “Young people are just smarter” — seems to guide these companies’ hiring practices.

History suggests they might want to change their tune. The industry is already struggling with enough public-relations disasters. Practicing short-sighted age discrimination won’t help their case.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.

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