Age determines a lot about your position in society—what activities you can do, what benefits you can access, and what rights and responsibilities you have.
Is age discrimination always wrong? How do we take people's age into account without being ageist? These are the questions we’re asking this week, in an episode called “Should All Ages Be Equal?”
Clearly we don’t want to discriminate, say, against 50-something Brits when it comes to hiring. (I’d be out of a job at Philosophy Talk!) But at the same time, we equally clearly don’t want to let a five-year-old drive a car, a 15-year-old buy a bottle of whisky, or a 40-year-old compete against kids in a spelling bee. So how do we draw the lines? And are we currently drawing them in a fair way?
Take the example of voting age. As it stands now, some twenty-five-year-old who knows nothing about politics gets to vote, but a smart 17-year-old who’s super plugged in doesn’t have any formal say in the future of their country. Why not?
One argument is that it’s only temporarily unfair to 17-year-olds. All they have to do is wait till they’re eighteen, and then they can vote. Everyone has to abide by the same rules; all of us eventually get the opportunity to vote, at exactly the same age. So the system is fair.
But is it really? Is it right to discriminate against 17-year-olds, just because we discriminate against all of them in the same way? We wouldn’t say that about age discrimination in hiring (“It’s OK—we reject all the fifty-somethings”).
This problem becomes clearer when we think about wages. In some countries, the minimum wage for teenage workers is lower than the minimum age for adults. So you can get less money for doing exactly the same job as someone else, just because you’re a bit younger. How is that fair?
One justification could be that younger people don’t need as much money: they’re largely taken care of by their parents. But not all young people are so lucky. And even if you do have a comfortable home environment, that’s not necessarily a good enough reason you should get paid less. If some 25-year-old moves back in with their parents, should that person’s pay get cut too?
None of this, of course, is to say that we should treat people of all ages exactly the same. For example, we don’t want 8-year-olds getting sent to work in factories; child labor laws are essential. But once someone is legally entitled to work, shouldn’t they be paid the same as everyone else?
Another justification for paying people differently based on age might be that a 15-year-old isn’t going to be as good a worker as an 18-year-old. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t as developed, so they’re going to be less mature, less reliable, and less resourceful.
Statistically speaking, that may be true, but it doesn’t mean every 18-year-old is going to be super-reliable either. Should some flakey 18-year-old really get paid more than a competent, responsible 15-year-old? It seems arbitrary to pay the 15-year-old less just because they’re a few years younger.
In general, it seems like some of the laws that determine what we’re allowed to do at what age have a little bit of arbitrariness to them. You can work at one age, drive at another, join the army at a third—and you still might not be able to vote or have a (legal) drink, depending on what country you live in.
While we could eliminate some of this arbitrariness in the system, for practical purposes we still need to draw lines somewhere. And once we’ve drawn them, they do at least apply equally to everybody. So that is surely better than nothing. (And needless to say, such lines are particularly essential when it comes to age of consent.)
But is that really the best we can do, when it comes to age-related fairness?
Our guest on this week’s episode—Juliana Bidadanure from Stanford University—will definitely have things to say about that. She’s just published a book on the subject, called Justice Across Ages: Treating Young and Old as Equals. I’m looking forward to hearing from her if there’s a way to prevent age discrimination and let 50-something Brits hang on to their jobs!