Age-old question of bias

Should language that offensively stereotypes older workers – terms like ‘wrinkly’ or ‘coffin-dodger’, for instance – become as taboo as words like ‘sodomite’ or ‘coloured’? Silly as this question may sound, versions of it are highly likely to crop up in HR departments in the next few years as policies are rewritten in the light of forthcoming age discrimination legislation. I’ve been thinking about this for a week, and on reflection, after due consideration of the issues, I’m definitely in two minds.

On the one hand, it serves nobody to be too sensitive about ostensibly light-hearted terminology. Start shrieking ‘ageism!’ at ‘wrinkly’, and ‘greybeard’ will be next, followed swiftly by ‘old-timer’. Those over-zealous e-mail filters are the curse of cyberspace, and the thought of sending ords into social quarantine and their users into social purdah is deeply depressing.

Besides, ‘ageist’ words seem harmless partly because they are so irredeemably naff; they carry none of the violent hatred of ‘queer’ or ‘Paki’, so why be so uptight? If HR departments start getting worked up about age-related language, they are going to have to start clamping down harder on ‘useless old fool’ than they do on ‘useless fool’, which does not make much sense. No organisation would want to move faster in its decisions about acceptable language for the workplace than society at large is really ready for. Banning things is great fun, of course, but maybe the discrimination industry should learn to live a little, or at least learn to let live.

On the other hand, prejudice is a denial of individuality, and age is no marker of competence. What is jokey in one context can quickly be switched into a nasty tool for demeaning someone in another. It is easy to imagine a person’s working life being made wretched by constant barracking, taunts and sleights endured because they are older than others and therefore ‘different’. If we are being consistent, then language suggestive of ageism ought to be treated in the same way as homophobic or racist language.

When the age discrimination law arrives next year, the potential compensation payouts at tribunal will be uncapped – just as they are with all the other equality laws. Social attitudes should try and reflect this legal consistency.

Terms associated with old age seem harmless now, but language evolves: ‘lady’ is no longer a mark of courtesy, but denotes either a bumbling misogynist or a lad on the pull. Maybe progressive organisations should encourage ageist language to evolve faster by hurrying it out of the category marked ‘mainstream’ and into the category marked ‘crass/boorish/offensive’. Maybe an easy-going tolerance is too often a cover for a spineless distaste for taking a stand.

So as I said, I’m cursed with two minds on this. I see-saw; I flip-flop; I um-and-ah. But in the process of a week of pointless and inconclusive internal rumination, I have decided one thing: the curse of the two minds infects many questions to do with age discrimination.
Let’s leave aside the matter of language and consider whether age equality is comparable to other equality issues – race or gender, for instance?

On the one hand, it is: the group of workers aged 55 plus appears to suffer manifest disadvantage, including low labour market participation, being overlooked for training, and being denied opportunities. Other minority groups can point to related injustices, so on this reading, older workers are an identifiable minority group.

But on the other hand, age is totally different. We were all young once, and we will, if we are fortunate, all be old. Age discrimination is potentially universal. The basic distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ that inhabits the concept of discrimination is not present in the same way. A woman will almost certainly remain a woman, and an Afro-Caribbean will always be an Afro-Caribbean, but age does not define a clear group.

It is arguable that some of the other new forms of discrimination involve similar debates. A heterosexual may become a homosexual, or maintain a foot in both camps at once; an atheist may become a theist, or simply remain perpetually troubled on this score. But there is no changing the ageing process. Barring death or illness, all people will become old people. Age is perhaps the first majority equality issue. So I’m in two minds on that, too. It’s a good job I shall never be asked to write an age discrimination law. All due sympathy should be extended to those who have to.

But what’s this? Could it be that the government is in two minds as well? On the 15 December 2004, Patricia Hewitt announced that the forthcoming age law will include “a national default retirement age” of 65. Employers will be able to offload anyone they want to at this age without having to give a good reason. On the face of it, forcing someone out of their job because they have reached an arbitrary birthday is pure, unadulterated age discrimination.

So the government appears to have U-turned. On the 6 February, the Financial Times reported that employees over 65 will be entitled to the same redundancy pay as younger workers for the first time, under the new law. Redundancy pay will no longer be age-restricted, as it is at present.

This year’s ‘ism’ is ageism. And this year’s mindset is ‘two minds’.

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