The beginning of the end of workplace age discrimination

How often do you hear: “there oughta be a law!” Changing the law to redress a wrong is certainly the first step but rarely the last. So it is with mandatory retirement – forcing someone to retire at a set age despite being fully capable of doing the job – is no longer legal thanks to the passage of Bill C-13 in December.

But that doesn’t mean workplace age discrimination has been eliminated. Law firms are already debating “how” to get rid of older workers – without a thought as to “whether” they should.

In Parliamentary hearings, CARP faced down arguments like: older workers present a safety hazard, retraining is too costly or younger people need their jobs. So it was no small feat to get the law changed against this landscape of prejudice and devaluing of older workers – which is why it has taken over 20 years!

And this is why workplace age discrimination continues to be a challenge for older workers even without mandatory retirement. Make no mistake, you don’t have to be 65-plus to be considered an older worker. Age discrimination in the work place can begin at 45 or 55, when a passing joke labels you ‘over the hill’ or the moment you’re passed over for promotion because you may not have as many ‘good years’ left as a younger employee.

Right up to the last minute, an impressive array of employers’ groups and a pilots’ union, lobbied against the change, saying things like: we’re not against removing age discrimination – just not in our industry.

Indeed, that argument convinced the Ontario government – which abolished mandatory retirement in 2006 – to quietly restore it for Ontario firefighters just before the summer recess last year.

While the mandatory retirement debate focused on the basic right of people to work so long as they’re qualified, it belies the many reasons older workers stay in the labour force. For some, the sheer pleasure of the job is sufficient. But, for a great number of older Canadians, work represents social inclusion, a sense of dignity, and most importantly, it represents the basic means of establishing financial security.

At a time when few Canadians can look forward to workplace pensions – and when many who can have to worry about the pension funds surviving company bankruptcy or years of mismanagement – being able to work, free of discrimination, is central to ensuring one’s own financial security. Age discrimination in the workplace strikes at the heart of older worker’s self-sufficiency, livelihood, and dignity.  For a more detailed look at the challenges for older workers, please click here and here.

So, the fight is not over. Not only could another group browbeat the politicians to drag us back to the last century, but intergenerational tension could arise in workplaces.That would bring us back into the courts but the real arena is that of social values and the law is limited in its ability to change pernicious social values.

For more information on the ongoing battle by firefighters in Ontario, click here.