The Agenda

Walter Olson on Age Discrimination Laws and Employment Levels

In recent years, as healthy lifespan has increased and as the value of retirement portfolios has deteriorated, a larger number of over-65 workers have remained in the workforce. Because older workers have on average somewhat higher levels of educational attainment than those just entering the workforce, and because they by definition have more work experience, this has made a valuable contribution to the economy. 

Yet there is more we can do to aid older workers who are looking not just to remain in their jobs but to find new ones. Some believe that the best way to help older workers is to strengthen age discrimination laws. Walter Olson, writing in Reason, suggests that this approach is likely to backfire, and that we should in fact move in the opposite direction:

The main cash-and-carry effect of age-bias law is to confer legal leverage on older male holders of desirable jobs, such as managers, pilots, and college professors, who by threatening to raise the issue can extract ampler severance packets than might otherwise be offered them. Much legal talent is wasted in the resulting exit negotiations, which seldom seem to rouse the ire of critics of gaudy executive pay, golden parachutes, and so forth.

It blatantly backfires on those it tries to help. Once cut loose from the old job, those same buyout recipients find it harder to land the next high-level job because of the perception that older hires are more likely to need buyouts not far down the road.

While its unlikely that repealing age-bias laws would have a dramatic effect, it does seem as though it would do some good, particularly as our population ages. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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