The Weakest Link a case study in overt ageism
The Weakest Link was a TV show that also provided a unique laboratory highlighting overt age discrimination, with contestants greying or wrinkled far more likely to be sent packaging than any other cohort, according to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s book in the book Freakonomics.
The study when applied to the workplace should have every policy maker and employer shuddering with fear at the wasted opportunities, but this serious impediment to productivity is near invisible, just like the so-called oldies themselves.
While now shelved, readers may remember The Weakest Link game show includes eight contestants who each answer trivia questions and compete for a single cash jackpot. After each round, every contestant votes to eliminate one other contestant.
You would think a player’s trivia answering ability would be the only worthwhile factor to consider but was it? An analysis of more than 160 episodes on American TV revealed that discrimination is actually a key factor in the contestant’s decisions with age trumping race and gender.
Interestingly the research states that the two potent social campaigns of the past half-century, the civil rights movement and feminism have had a significant impact on discrimination.
It has become so unfashionable, even taboo to openly discriminate against certain groups that all but the most insensitive of people take pains to at least appear fair-minded in public. Levitt continues to point out that this hardly means that discrimination has ended, only that people are embarrassed to show it.
It is no coincidence that elderly players were eliminated far out of proportion to their skills. The average age of the contestants was thirty-four and they simply did not want the older players around. The other group that was discriminated were Latinos who were considered poor players even when they were not.
The recipients of age discrimination are often silent, stoic and struggling, often describing themselves as invisible and on the scrap heap as early as 50. Unlike the suffragettes or powerful images of Ruby Bridges attending an integrated school, there has not been a similar movement for the greying masses.
The impacts are starting to have significant social ramifications, the results of which will be hard to reverse and have far reaching consequences.
For example research states “there are more people over 50 in work for the dole schemes across Australia than there are unemployed people under the age of 22”. “If anyone loses their job over 50 they are out of work for an average of 72 weeks or 13 months”. (New work is often less hours or inferior to their previous work) “There are now 210,000 Australians over the age of 50 who are living off unemployment benefits”. Even more startling, according to the Huffington Post, is that the highest lifetime risk of depression was found among baby boomers between 45 and 64. In explaining why, one quote states:
“We are shown the door and in many cases told our skills were essentially worthless in the market place. We don’t feel old, we don’t look old we don’t see ourselves as old so why did everything suddenly get so damn hard.”
The individuals themselves are not the only ones to experience the impacts of ageism. Families and communities are impacted as well. A big bright piercing spotlight needs to be focused directly and squarely on the issue, not just politically correct words and token sums of money. If social consequences are not enough the financial impacts speak for themselves. Did you know an extra 3% participation rate in workers over 55 is estimated to account for a $33 billion boost to Australia’s gross domestic product!
What our society should be outraged that a significant proportion of a generation’s talent may be lost not so much due to their capability but because they don’t look young beautiful and the new buzzword “vital”. An example of the value of experience is the knowledge gained through leading through financial hardship like recessions, high unemployment and high interest rates. Since the early 1990’s, since Keating announced the recession “we had to have”, Australia has been very prosperous and avoided the global 2000 recession and the GFC. Individuals entering the workforce since that time have benefited both socially and economically. Paradoxically however many have not gained the necessary experience of dealing with tough times because they have lived through one of the most buoyant times in history.
A perfect example of this is the recent news article on Marissa Mayer 40, the CEO of Yahoo. I quote:
“She knew nothing but success says someone who worked closely with Mayer at Google. Mayer was hire number 20 at the company and is worth a reported $US300 million. She ‘s never seen what any of us would call tough times”.
As Yahoo struggles Mayer has spent 7 million dollars on the annual Xmas party, 108 million dollars on free food for employees and has laid off 1,100 employees calling the restructure a remix. Can you imagine the value Mayer may have gained if she was able to access the knowledge and skills from people who had had the knowledge and skills of managing through tough times?
Significant public campaigning has had some degree of success; at least people are embarrassed to discriminate in public. When it comes to ageism, however, not even this milestone has been met.
If Australia is serious about increasing workforce participation, increasing productivity, reducing the reliance on the public purse and being serious about giving everyone a fair go, serious public policy and serious public debate needs to be front and centre on the national agenda.
Tokenism and political correctness can no longer be tolerated, its time to act. History shows that uprisings for women and non-whites have profoundly impacted today’s landscapes. Surely an educated nation such as ours does not need 50+ folk rallying in the street. Surely corporate Australia who long chants about diversity should be doing anything and everything to attract, retain and accommodate this rich well of experience.
Recently I sent a journalist a couple of my articles on “ageism” located on my website. We organised to meet and after a stimulating conversation he said he believed that the information I provided in my articles need to reach a broader audience. Within two days he had organised for me to speak on local and national radio and sent my articles to another two journalists for review. My most recent article has just been posted.
This is a link to the podcast. It is with Susan Ryan and myself being interviewed by Ellen Fanning on ageism.