Would We Fire Older Workers If We Could?

I went to grad school for Communication Studies in the early nineties. In our class of 20 was a young man from a small Asian country that I won’t mention—he was a marketer for his nation’s airline (government-owned) at the time. Just before arriving in Chicago to dive into graduate school, Vic had initiated the launch of an exciting new marketing campaign for the airline. In our first after-class get-together, he filled us in on the program. “It’s not just a new slogan or a set of advertisements,” he told our the 20- and 30-somethings gathered at the pub. “It’s a full-out cultural change for our company. We’re taking a fresh approach to our look and feel, and need a new approach in our thinking to go along with it. That’s why we’ve asked the older members of our staff, everyone over 50, to resign, and we’re hiring in a fresh bunch of kids to take the company forward.”

The communal gasp from Vic's classmates made a dozen heads turn in the pub. "But Vic," we said, "Here in the U.S., that sort of thing would be illegal." Vic looked deflated. In his country, he explained, his airline's move was viewed as a bold and startling break from tradition--the tradition that revered age and wisdom, as we surely all understood--much more in keeping, so the company leaders thought, with a Western-style business approach. "Gosh," I said, as the sole HR member of the class, "We are pretty aggressive marketers, not to mention business leaders, here in the U.S., but we don't boot our older workers wholesale in order to cultivate fresh thinking--at least, not legally and with documentation." "I am shocked," said Vic."I thought the U.S. was obsessed with youth culture." "We are," his classmates told him (and this was before Facebook!). "We just try to balance that obsession with a respect for employment laws."

Who can fail to understand Vic's confusion? The same grad students who were horrifed at Vic's triumphant proclamation ("Out with the oldsters!") have surely themselves run into frustration with old-style thinking from colleagues older than themselves, somewhere along the line. We DO love youth culture, here in the U.S. We celebrate fresh thinking and new ideas. Age discrimination claims in employment are on the rise. Are our anti-discrimination laws the only things that are keeping our employers from following the airline's lead and booting the oldest employees? Can new ideas and older talent pools co-exist?

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