Age, Ageism, and Equality

02 December 2021

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!

Photo by Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash

Comments (1)


Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, December 2, 2021 -- 12:50 PM

There are two different

There are two different issues here, from the show to this blog post—rights for the young and privileges for a 50-year-old Brit. There is room for compromise between these two, if not a bit of philosophy. Rights, learning, and consequence are where I'm going. Bidadanure (advocating for the young) / Landy (advocating for his job – and the old), when conceived as a fraction Bidadanure (B - numerator) over Landy (L - denominator), is always greater than one. Philosophically and historically, this equation is a fraction of one. Not to harp on artificial intelligence, but work on neural networks and neuroscience inform this equation ( B/L>=1 ) and add a bit of complexity.

Age of consent and right to retire (slash need to retire) are tied to development. Ill-conceived lines can diminish health and happiness. Child coyotes at the border and soldiers in Africa and South East Asia are three examples of oppressed young. The houseless, Covid administration to elderly first and estate taxes are examples of elder oppression or favoritism. Adjusting the age of voting and privilege seems right. The world has changed and is calling for a revision in coming-of-age rights and services for the elderly.

The show touched on many of the ideas I would endorse. Some form of uniform basic income (UBI) seems right, along with an extension of voting rights to younger people with an additional ability for the highly precocious to apply for rights – if desired. I know these ideas are limited by reality, but it is time to reconsider that reality.

Something that wasn't touched on in the show was service. I advocate for mandatory military service or like-minded government exposure for teenagers. This service could be a gate to voting rights and UBI in a lump sum or life-long stipend.

Education is an age-based educational system, at the moment, that is being disrupted with online MOOCs and structured curricula allowing people to learn at their own pace, interest, and ability. Some of the ageist issues are dealt with in this way. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a project in this vein. The idea that one way, board-delivered testing determines life path is frigid and dated.

Finally, neural networking models human learning and informs this discussion. AI is not premised on development like it is for homo sapiens. Leaning on the world's perception as seen through deep learning will allow people to see issues they can't get through their limited biology. What I am proposing is an artificially intelligent concierge for the young and the old (to address the inequities - of course, middle-age crisis victims and critics need concerning as well - but the problem statement is primarily one for the young and old.) This is a delicate relationship at best. We need to pay attention to our relationship to our phones/online identities in thinking about rights and responsibilities.

This response doesn't answer the questions asked here, but it's where I'm sitting now. Let's save Josh's job and allow his students a bit more freedom and promise.

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