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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Supreme Court Makes Decision on Age Discrimination Case

In the spirit of the Title IX decision of yesterday, the Supreme Court today ruled that people who believe themselves victims of age discrimination may try to make such a claim in court. Whether the judge rules in their favour is another matter, however. Prior to the decision, it seems that those who believed themselves targets of age discrimination could not file what is called a disparate impact claim -- a claim that would allow them to argue that a policy disproportionately harmed older employees rather than having to establish deliberate discrimination. According to the CNN article, disparate impact claims are already allowed when arguing racial discrimination in the workplace. Age discrimination, or ageism, is one of the least known forms of discrimination, because it's so deeply ingrained in society to believe our skills are based upon our age. From age limits for smoking, drinking, and driving, America is based solidly upon the assumption that as we age, we reach certain 'on' states in which our age guarantees a level of competence or intellectual awareness. And certainly, this can be true: a fifteen or eighteen year old person will most certainly have greater maturity, responsibility, and sense of him or herself than an eight or ten year old. But, at the same time, are we discriminating against people based on age when we place limits upon people, not allowing them to prove their abilities above or below a certain age? Our system pretty much forces retirement at 65, and doesn't allow a mature 17 year old to test for his or her license, even if they are more capable than an 18 year old. This kind of system only breed prejudicial attitudes and secondary forms of institutional racism -- an 18 year old is considered to be a less responsible driver than a 23 year old, for example, and is actually disadvantaged when it comes to trying to buy a car or obtain the necessary insurance. Meanwhile, an employer can justify discriminating against an older employee who is near the age of retirement, because the person will be leaving the company within a year anyways: electroman's mother, for example, was nearly pushed out of her job as a school teacher, where she had been teaching for something like 40 years, because she was a year off from retirement; they tried to encourage her to retire early because they saw her as 'an old fogey' and not 'with the times', despite her extensive experience. How do we reconcile the real differences of skills between people of different ages and yet prevent ourselves from fostering ageist attitudes? Certainly, ageism is a serious problem, not only because it disadvantages a sizable portion of our community (on both ends of the age spectrum) but it helps condone prejudice of any kind -- if we continue to accept that it's okay to discriminate based upon age, then we are one step closer to finding 'legitimate-sounding' reasons to discriminate based upon race, gender, religion, and sexuality.

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