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If the US Experience Is Anything To Go By, Be Sceptical of Britain's New Age-Bias Laws

October 18, 2006

By Walter Olson

So now Britain has its own law banning employers from considering workers' age in most job situations. If your experience follows ours in America, the results will include a range of unintended consequences, some of which will worsen the plight of the workers the law was meant to help.

Age-bias law in the US dates back to 1967 and was much stiffened in 1978. One should note that it differs from the UK version in several important ways. For example, our law awards richer damages to plaintiffs, and comes closer to banning automatic retire-at-65 policies. On the other hand, it makes no attempt, as British law does, to protect youthful workers from bias: it's "one-way" in favor of the older worker.

Some high points of our experience:

Lawful practice is often determined by courts after the fact, especially on complex matters such as employee benefits administration, and even well advised employers run afoul. Major law firms—some famed for their employment law defense departments—have themselves dropped big verdicts in their capacity as employers. At the same time, trend-chasing sectors of the US economy like entertainment and fashion continue fairly blatantly to ignore the law.

Be sceptical when claims are made that a law like this will boost elderly employment. Between 1984 and 1994, as age-bias suits boomed here, labor force participation for the key target group, men aged 55-64, slid from 68.5 to 65.5 percent; it has since recovered, but only back to the old level.

Some believe the climate for older jobseekers has in fact gotten worse. Once managers learn to avoid verbal slips, it's actually quite hard for a lone rejected applicant to prove an age-bias case. And there's scant pressure on employers to "hire by numbers", since no one seriously argues that a set share of new lifeguards, bicycle messengers or MTV hosts should sport silver hair. At the same time, if you do give sixtyish applicants a try and they don't work out, they may bring suit or require an expensive buyout.

Yes, age-bias law in the US probably counts as politically unassailable. But that doesn't mean it has worked well.

Original Source:



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