March 25, 2006

Don't look back: the old geezers may be gaining on you

I've been reading a book called Ageism: Stereotypes and Prejudice Against Older Persons, edited by Todd D. Nelson (MIT Press 2004). I confess that this topic is important to me because a few years ago I graduated from middle age to the Old Guy category myself. Most of the chapters are written by psychologists who have been studying ageism for the past 30 years but I was especially interested in chapter six, "Ageism in the Workplace: A Communication Perspective," by Robert McCann and Howard Giles, because it's the only chapter that deals with language. Well, it deals with words anyway.

Forensic linguists don't tend to share much about the cases they've worked on but I think it's safe to say that we haven't had very many age discrimination lawsuits, even though the major evidence in such cases is likely to be found in written documents. I once worked on a case brought by an executive in one of America's huge corporations. He was dumped while still in his early 50s. Oddly enough, his employment history showed only very positive annual employee evaluations. Nothing bad was reported, nor would anybody above him in the corporate ladder explain to him why he was dismissed. So he took the matter to a lawyer who then asked me to help him find evidence of age bias.

One huge problem was that the company's president made it a practice never to write memos, letters or anything else that could be used to show discrimination. There were also precious few things written by the lower layers of executives. It's hard to know if there is a Department of Shredding at that company but one is allowed to have one's suspicions. I did manage to find some journal articles that quoted the company's president and in them I found a number of the same or similar expressions used by employers in past age discrimination cases. These included inflexible, rigid, cautious, cranky, old goat, long in the tooth, unadaptable, out of touch, close minded, and focused on the past. Naturally, these expressions helped win judgments against employers.

I discovered most of these and a few others through electonic searches of about a hundred journal articles that had been written about the company. 14 of the articles contained quotes attributed to the president and other high-level executives. I also located 4 speeches that the president had given at various college business schools but I could locate only one internal company memo outlining the type of person the company wanted to fill an open executive position. From all of these I isolated the following words and expressions used to describe a candidate that the company considered an undesirable manager: old, close to the vest, anchor of the past, yesterday's manager, weak, long years of service, sat in the right chairs, plateaued out, ruled by tradition, cautious, slow, conformist, organization man, rooted in yesterday, tied to the past, bureaucratic, faint of heart, and, belive it or not, loyal.

In contrast, attributes that the company considered desirable in an executive included the following: a gut person, adopts to change, tomorrow's leader, lean, agile, fast, able to grow, creative, driven, tries the new, fresh, impatient, and irreverant.

Obviously I used these expressions in my report. After all the expert witness reports on both sides were submitted, the case was settled without going to trial. The judgment was sealed so I'll never know for sure what the plaintiff got out of it but the lawyers I worked with told me that they were very happy with the result.

Ageism is indeed shaped by language. Nothing magical happens at age 65. I am one of those cautious, slow, loyal old goats myself, so I was heartened by one of the statements McCann and Giles said in their chapter: "There is little change in intellectual function for individuals throughout adulthood except in matters pertaining to speed and reaction time...brain activity in healthy people in their 80s is comparable to that of people in their 20s."

Yet the common reluctance of employers to hire and retain workers over the age of 55 is that the mental demands of work, the inability to cope with change, and resistance to new technology remains. Age discrimination in the workplace can be a treasure trove of linguistic research. But watch out, you young, fresh, agile, lean, driven young people! If the true value of an older worker is ever fully recognized, Satchel Paige's advice may be relevant:"Don't look back, somebody might be gaining on you."

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 25, 2006 05:22 PM