The Great Depression moved the debate over age discrimination to the centre 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 the age of 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.
Legislative intervention came with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned other forms of discrimination. Although the Act did not address age discrimination, the Secretary of Labor did study the problem and 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.