Ageism in the Workplace: United States and Mexico

By: Benjamin Mitrani

In a scene from the Office (US), Jan askes Michael, “[s]o what’s Ryan doing here?”  Michael responded, “[o]h, I dunno, they’re launching a big new business plan.  New website, blah blah blah . . . it’s all about youth, and agility and streamlining and trying to squeeze out the older people.”  Then, Jan responds, “I hope he[] gets hit with an ageism suit.”  Jan explains, “Ageism? Companies they can’t discriminate against people due to old age . . . .”  When Michael hears this, he only had one response, “[s]o older people have just as many rights as younger people?” Yes, Michael Scott, they certainly do.  The United States has explicit statutes that prohibit prejudicial behaviors toward older people and the Mexican Constitution prohibits discrimination based off of a person’s age.  Yet, each country faces ageism in the workforce and job hiring process.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act makes it clear that the hiring and firing of employees can only be based on “ability rather than age.”  This Act prevents age-based discrimination, and forces employers to evaluate employees on merit, not age.  Section 631 of this Act provides protection for workers 40 and older.  This Act prevents discrimination in all aspects of employment.

However, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act has not solved workplace ageism in the United States.  In fact, the national General Social Survey reported an increase to “perceived discrimination due to age” from 6.0% to 8.4% from 1977 to 2002.  Additionally, more than 1,700 age-based discrimination claims were filed in 2004 related to hiring.  This uncertainty in hiring could lead to increases in cosmetic surgery and anxiety. Furthermore, the effects of ageism include a “decreased will to live, less desire to live a healthy lifestyle, an impaired recovery from illness, increased stress, and a shortened life span.”

Ageism also exists in the Mexican job market.  According to the Association against Employment and Workplace Discrimination by Age or Gender in Mexico, “55% of jobs have a listed maximum age of applicants at 35 years old” where “only 10% consider applicants with a maximum age between 48 and 50.”  This creates the similar problems in Mexico, where applicants go to great lengths to conceal their age and suffer mental and physical health consequences as a result.

Article I of the 1917 Mexican Constitution reads as follows: “Any form of discrimination, based on ethnic or national origin, gender, age, disabilities, social status, medical conditions, religion, opinions, sexual orientation, marital status, or any other form, which violates the human dignity or seeks to annul or diminish the rights and freedoms of the people, is prohibited.”  Yet, ageism is quite prevalent, and it certainly does violate human dignity.

To combat ageism in Mexico, the Mexican Justice Commission of the Chamber of Deputies is considering an amendment to the Federal Criminal Code that would punish companies and individuals for ageism, specifically, not hiring a qualified individual due to his or her age.  These penalties could be a “sentence of one to three years in prison, or a compensation from 150 to 300 days in community work, and a fine of up to 200 days of minimum wage.”

Ageism is an irony of life.  All people age.  And we all were a dependent baby at one point.  Yet, as we grow and become self-sufficient, we turn our backs on the very people whom we once needed to survive.

The issue of ageism is interesting to consider–especially as the Baby Boomer population ages– and more millennials enter the job market in the United States.  There are arguments on both sides of the conversation, but it ultimately rests on fairness: Whether the applicant or current employee is qualified and capable of producing sufficient work to be hired and maintain employment.

Harsh punishments might prevent ageism but there could be other solutions. Perhaps, as a society, we need to rethink our values and question our behaviors towards our older population.  In any event, if you see an older person on the bus or subway, and you are capable of giving up your seat, do it, because one day that’ll be you, and I am sure you would appreciate it.

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