Commentary

What Would You Do to Improve Job Growth?

If I could press a button and instantly vaporize one sector of employment law, I think I’d pick age discrimination.

Its beneficiaries are among those needing least assistance. The main cash-and-carry effect of age-bias law is to confer legal leverage on older male holders of desirable jobs, such as managers, pilots, and college professors, who by threatening to raise the issue can extract ampler severance packets than might otherwise be offered them. Much legal talent is wasted in the resulting exit negotiations, which seldom seem to rouse the ire of critics of gaudy executive pay, golden parachutes and so forth.

It blatantly backfires on those it tries to help. Once cut loose from the old job, those same buyout recipients find it harder to land the next high-level job because of the perception that older hires are more likely to need buyouts not far down the road.

It generates pointless avoidance mechanisms. Ask your HR director about the costly stage in layoff strategy known as “age-balancing the RIF” or about the many small-talk questions you’re not supposed to ask at job interviews for fear of seeming interested in the subject (“I notice you’re a veteran. Which war?”) or about the brain-cracking legal headaches that arise from the premise that (at least in some situations) the design of pension plans is supposed to take no notice of age.

Its intellectual basis is lighter than helium. Race, sex, sexual orientation and disability each form the basis of a major identity politics movement. But really: “ageism?” It’s one thing to abridge liberty to expiate the national guilt of antebellum slavery, but can anyone keep a straight face in proclaiming persons of late middle age a historically oppressed class?

Please, I want to see this law repealed before I’m too old to enjoy it.

Walter Olson is a contributing editor to Reason, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and proprietor of Overlawyered.com.