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What the Paradox of 3 Maxes Reveals About Ageism
In study of three actors with identical scripts, oldest is most disliked

By Dana Wilkie  8/1/2013
In a video, three men from three different generations explain to three different audiences why they won’t share their wealth with relatives. Each uses the same words, tones and gestures, but it’s the oldest man whom viewers dislike the most, according to a poll of the audiences.

Welcome to the paradox of the three “Maxes,” which two Princeton University researchers discovered while studying whether society penalizes older people for failing to adhere to stereotypes about how seniors should behave.

Their conclusion: Absolutely.

“Older people have more rules [that] they have to follow from the point of view of younger people and those who are ageist,” said Susan Fiske, Princeton’s Eugene Higgins professor of psychology and co-author of a study that measures age discrimination. “We find that older people who adhere to the rules for their behavior—step aside, don’t interfere—are liked better and people want to interact with them more than those who resist rules.”

What does that finding mean for the workplace? OIder people who don’t behave as younger managers expect them to find it “harder to be hired if they’re looking for a job, harder to be rehired if they lose a job, and pressured to retire,” said Fiske, whose research findings were published in the June 2013 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age-based discrimination against older workers when hiring, firing or compensating them. Yet, ageism is one of the toughest types of workplace bias to prove, said Todd Nelson, a psychology professor at California State University, Stanislaus, who edited The Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination (Taylor & Francis, 2009).

“You have to show it’s the sole reason you were fired, and that’s hard to prove because most employers aren’t dumb enough to write in a memo that I’m firing you because of your age,” Nelson said.

Even if such cases are hard to prove, those born from 1946 to 1964 are filing workplace discrimination claims at a faster rate than those filing claims based on race or sex, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The number of people who filed age claims with the EEOC in 1997 was 15,875—representing 19 percent of all claims filed that year. In 2012 the number was 22,875—representing 23 percent of all claims. Meanwhile, the number of people filing race claims dropped to 33 percent of all claims in 2012, compared with 36 percent in 1997. The number of people filing sex-discrimination claims stayed at about 30 percent of all claims from 1997 to 2012.

Despite those figures, Nelson believes that “ageism is still under the radar in terms of prejudice that people are aware of.” Negative messages about aging are so pervasive that it’s difficult for people to identify them as discriminatory, he added.

“You can look at the greeting-card section in any store and the message is that it’s bad to get older,” Nelson said. “[Milestone]-birthday balloons are black and have the message ‘Over the hill’; cards are shaped like coffins. Then there’s a billion-dollar-a-year industry to cover the signs of aging—wrinkles, gray hair, liver spots.”

Why Are We Getting That Message?

Nelson subscribes to what he calls the “terror management theory,” which suggests that because older people remind younger ones of their mortality, the latter “tend to stereotype the older person to create psychological and emotional distance, blaming them for being old and saying to themselves, ‘I’m not going to be like that.’ That way, our ‘terror’ is alleviated.”

In Fiske’s study of 137 Princeton undergraduates, conducted with Princeton psychology Ph.D. student Michael North, “Max” (played by three actors, ages 25, 45 and 75) introduces himself via videotape and says he has some money, though he feels no obligation to share it with relatives. All three actors recite the same script. Even so, Max’s reluctance to share his wealth is “resented in the older guy but not in the middle-aged or younger guys,” Fiske said.

Why? Another study finding might help answer that question: Fiske and North found that respondents liked the older Max better if they first read a news article predicting that there would be enough resources to go around between the generations as the population aged.

“All of us are interdependent with people of other ages in a way that we aren’t with people of other ethnicities, because everybody has people in their family and workplace who are older and younger,” Fiske said. “Young people have a vested interest in old people behaving a certain way, like retiring promptly or giving up the family money or not using up Social Security so there’ll be some left for younger people.”

Joanna Lahey, associate professor of public policy at Texas A&M University, said that though age discrimination may be difficult to prove in court, it’s not hard to find in her research. Lahey sent out 4,000 resumes to Massachusetts and Florida businesses from fictitious applicants ranging in age from 35 to 62—all of them women and all applying for entry-level jobs requiring little experience. The younger applicants were 40 percent more likely to be called for an interview than those 50 or older, she found.

Lahey’s interviews with hiring managers indicate they worry “that an older worker left a job because something was wrong with them, about them being supervised by younger people, about age-discrimination claims, about resistance to change, about their mobility and about their ability to learn new things, such as computer skills.”

Harder to research is age discrimination in non-entry-level jobs, because it’s difficult to make the fictitious resume of an older worker identical to that of a younger worker, Lahey observed. “The older you are, the more experience you’re expected to have.”

In an October 2006 paper for Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, Lahey looked into whether the ADEA and similar state laws have helped or hurt older workers. She found that it cuts both ways. In her paper “How Do Age Discrimination Laws Affect Older Workers?,” Lahey concluded that companies affected by the ADEA are unlikely to fire older workers outright for fear of lawsuits; on the other hand, employers may decide against hiring older people, who will be difficult to terminate.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.  

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