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Authors take on age discrimination

Sunday, August 19, 2001

By Carnegie Library's Business Librarians

"Age Discrimination In the American Workplace: Old At a Young Age" by Raymond F. Gregory. Rutgers University Press, 2001.

You are over 50 and you've just lost your job -- a frightening but all-too-common occurrence in today's workplace. Were you let go because of your age? Was your former position filled by a younger, less experienced employee? The author, an experienced employment lawyer, is outraged at the many misperceptions still entrenched in corporate America regarding older workers. Employers are quick to assume these employees are no longer capable of performing adequately because of a presumed decline in physical and mental abilities. Older workers are often stereotyped as stubborn, inflexible and slow to accept new technologies. In addition, employers are reluctant to invest in updating the skills of older workers because it is assumed their remaining length of service will be short.

Older workers also are associated with higher salaries, pension benefits and health costs, and so employers who seek to reduce those costs also favor downsizing and early retirement "incentives." There are many insidious ways to "encourage" older workers to retire. Severance packages may be offered but, in return, the employee must waive all rights to file suit against the employer at a later date. Workers will most likely sign the waiver and releases in order to receive the severance package, knowing that if they refuse to do so, they may be dismissed anyway and receive nothing. Calculated strategies to get older employees to leave on their own are not unusual either. Employees with excellent performance records are passed over for promotions; they are no longer offered challenging or desirable assignments; and often they are expected to meet impossibly high sales goals.

To alleviate such injustices, Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) in 1967, which made it unlawful for employers to permit a worker's age to influence employment decisions. However, Raymond F. Gregory says the ADEA has failed to fulfill this role "since, to this day, discrimination against older workers remains a national disgrace." He analyzes several pertinent cases, both won and lost, to illustrate his points. He notes that employers make every effort to settle or dismiss age-discrimination cases before they go to jury trial, since juries are likely to be sympathetic to the older dismissed worker, who may remain unemployed or underemployed for the rest of his life. However, the author offers a caveat for those considering legal action: The burden of proof is on the worker. Proving an age discrimination case can be complicated. Before rushing off to file a lawsuit, you must make an honest assessment of your work performance. Has it deteriorated? Are you slacking off because retirement is near? Are you fulfilling the expectations of your employer? The ADEA does permit an employer to dismiss a worker, regardless of age, for inadequate or poor job performance.

You don't have to read a Stephen King thriller to feel chills go up and down your spine, because this book, in its way, will serve the same purpose. However, by the time you have finished reading it, you'll know how to identify age-discriminatory actions and, more importantly, what steps you can take if you believe you have been the victim of such actions.

"Blood Sweat & Tears: The Evolution of Work" by Richard Donkin. Texere, 2001.

Why do we work? What is work? These are the deeply philosophical questions that Richard Donkin wrestles with in a style that is at once erudite and accessible. In "Blood, Sweat & Tears" he tackles the daunting task of defining work and excels at it; calling this a smart book is like calling Winston Churchill a good public speaker. Donkin illuminates the hallowed institution of the "Protestant work ethic," discussing everything from its 16th-century origins to the long shadow it continues to cast over our 21st-century lives. He finds that it has created a kind of "social drag" that hinders the evolution of work in our 21st-century society.

Citing the writings of archaeologists and scholars in his explorations Donkin notes that the earliest, "stone-age" and "primitive" societies of humans had a very different perspective on the concept of work. Donkin centers his book around the idea "that work itself has a history." His examination of that history through the ages concludes that modern Western society's slavish acceptance of the Protestant work ethic may be both misplaced and unnecessary. "Blood Sweat & Tears" leaves no stone unturned in its thorough treatment of humanity's labors, from the hunting expeditions of our ancient ancestors, to the sweltering sweatshops of the industrial revolution, to the cramped cubicles of modern office buildings.

Donkin not only explains where the nature of work has been, but also maps out where it is going. No mere catalog of how work has changed our lives and shaped our collective destiny, his book offers a refreshing new perspective on how we might view work outside of the Protestant work ethic box. "Work and the prospect of work," Donkin writes in his conclusion, "must offer hope of something better if it offers nothing else." Both provocative and profound, "Blood Sweat & Tears" is fittingly the product of a lot of hard work on the part of its author.

Contact the business librarians, who also answer questions about business, money and work, at 412-281-7141 or at www.carnegielibrary.org/clp/libctr/business/ .

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