Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in Employment Act

After acting against racial and other forms of discrimination, Congress acted to protect older Americans by passing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Summary of Event

For most of U.S. history, American society demonstrated little concern about age discrimination. This lack of concern stemmed from several important influences. First, only racial discrimination was recognized as a serious social problem prior to the twentieth century. Other forms of discrimination that denied opportunities to people because of their gender, ethnicity, physical disabilities, or age were presumed to be natural components of the social order. Although northern legislators’ awareness of racial discrimination led to several ineffective remedial enactments by the U.S. Congress as early as the 1860’s, there remained significant disagreement within American society even about the seriousness of racial discrimination and about the need for government efforts to eradicate it. Labor;age discrimination
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967)
Elderly rights
[kw]Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (Dec. 15, 1967)
[kw]Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Congress Enacts the (Dec. 15, 1967)
[kw]Discrimination in Employment Act, Congress Enacts the Age (Dec. 15, 1967)
[kw]Employment Act, Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in (Dec. 15, 1967)
[kw]Act, Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in Employment (Dec. 15, 1967)
Labor;age discrimination
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967)
Elderly rights
[g]North America;Dec. 15, 1967: Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in Employment Act[09540]
[g]United States;Dec. 15, 1967: Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in Employment Act[09540]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 15, 1967: Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in Employment Act[09540]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 15, 1967: Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in Employment Act[09540]
[c]Business and labor;Dec. 15, 1967: Congress Enacts the Age Discrimination in Employment Act[09540]
Dent, John H.
Wirtz, Willard
Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;rights of the elderly

Second, until the late nineteenth century, the United States was primarily an agrarian society. People generally worked throughout their lives on farms or in small towns that provided services to farmers. Problems of age discrimination in employment did not become noticeable until industrialization, urbanization, and immigration transformed the American labor market into a competitive sector that periodically produced problems of unemployment.

Third, Americans’ life expectancy increased during the twentieth century in conjunction with advances in medical science, sanitation, and occupational safety. Problems of age discrimination developed as people began to live longer and to remain active in the labor force for longer periods of time. Because the problem of age discrimination was not recognizable until the twentieth century, there was little government action directed toward the problem until American society’s overall sensitivity to various forms of discrimination was heightened during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

During the 1950’s, decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, protest marches, and sit-ins by African American demonstrators and their supporters helped raise the national consciousness about the problems of discrimination in American society. Television news coverage of protesters being beaten by law-enforcement officers and attacked by police dogs gave middle-class white Americans greater awareness of the systematic victimization of African Americans in the South. Relatively little changed in the lives of many African Americans, however, because the Supreme Court decisions that ordered the dismantling of segregated schools were generally not implemented until the mid-1960’s and thereafter. Members of Congress shared this heightened concern about the existence of discrimination in American society, and many civil rights laws were proposed during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Because of the structure of the committee system within Congress, however, southern senators and representatives controlled many key committees. These southern legislators succeeded in blocking congressional consideration of antidiscrimination legislation even as public support for such legislation grew.

In the aftermath of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, asked Congress to pass civil rights legislation as a means of honoring the deceased president. Johnson, previously a leading member of the U.S. Senate, also applied his substantial legislative contacts and political skills to encourage passage of antidiscrimination laws. With momentum from the Kennedy assassination and encouragement from Johnson, members of Congress were finally able to gain sufficient votes to break the stranglehold of southern committee chairs who had been blocking legislation. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 , forbidding discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and government programs. The initial civil rights legislation was designed to redress discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin.

As Congress finally addressed the problems of discrimination in American society, it gained a heightened awareness of other kinds of discrimination, such as gender discrimination, which served to prevent people from obtaining employment and otherwise enjoying the benefits of life in American society. One part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 demonstrated the increased congressional concern about various kinds of discrimination by mandating that the secretary of labor undertake a study of the problems of employment discrimination experienced by older Americans. Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz conducted this study and found substantial problems throughout American society.

In his 1965 report to Congress, Wirtz noted that half of all private job openings were barred to individuals age fifty-five and older. One-quarter of all private job openings were barred to people older than age forty-five. When people lost their jobs after they had reached their forties or fifties, they frequently experienced great difficulties in finding employment, despite studies demonstrating that older workers often exceeded younger workers in skills and dependability. As a result of this age discrimination, more than one-half of all families in poverty were headed by individuals age forty-five and older. Older people throughout the country were suffering dire economic consequences because of the prevalence of age discrimination in employment. If they lost their jobs, they had an especially difficult time providing food, shelter, medical care, and the other necessities of life for their families.

Wirtz suggested that Congress consider enacting remedial legislation that would protect older people from age discrimination in employment in the same manner that people were protected against discrimination by race and other categories. The impetus for congressional action ultimately came when President Johnson addressed the problems of older Americans in January, 1967. In a message to Congress, Johnson urged the legislators to enact a law to prevent the unjust and arbitrary denial of employment opportunities for older people. A primary sponsor of the resulting antidiscrimination legislation was Representative John H. Dent of Pennsylvania. As the chair of the House Subcommittee on Labor House Subcommittee on Labor of the House Committee on Education and Labor House Committee on Education and Labor , Dent presided over hearings that examined the problems of age discrimination and attempted to fashion workable legislation to address those problems. Dent’s subcommittee heard testimony about age discrimination from Secretary Wirtz and from representatives of various organizations concerned with the rights of older Americans. The subcommittee also heard testimony from flight attendants and others who were subjected to mandatory firing upon reaching ages as young as thirty-two.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was among the groups that objected to the proposed legislation and argued that the problem could be solved through voluntary initiatives involving education and public relations. A majority of senators and representatives, however, believed that age discrimination was sufficiently serious to deserve stronger action on behalf of victims. Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) on December 15, 1967, to permit lawsuits by employment discrimination victims between the ages of forty and sixty-five.

In subsequent years, the law was amended to permit lawsuits by anyone age forty or older, with no upper age limit. The ADEA actually gave older workers greater ability to hold discriminating employers accountable than did other civil rights laws aimed at employment discrimination. Unlike the federal statute concerning race and gender discrimination, in which the claims are heard by a judge only and financial awards are limited to back pay, the ADEA permits older workers to have jury trials and to seek financial damages that punish employers found guilty of wrongful discrimination as well as compensating the workers for damages. Although relatively few older workers had any awareness of the ADEA until the 1980’s, the law represents an important tool to combat employment discrimination.


The passage of the ADEA marked a significant moment in the history of American civil rights. For the first time, national policy makers recognized the harms endured by older people in the job market and took strong action to redress the problems of age discrimination. Prior to the passage of the ADEA, some states had limited statutes designed to provide remedies for older people victimized by employment discrimination. The state laws represented a patchwork pattern that provided protection for older people in some states but left discrimination victims in other states completely unprotected. The ADEA provided uniform national protections for older people in every state.

As a result of the ADEA, people age forty and older can initiate legal actions to challenge unfair discrimination by employers. This is a useful means of attacking age discrimination in employment and represents a policy declaration by the federal government that places employment discrimination against older persons on the same footing as employment discrimination against other groups of people.

Thousands of people have made use of the ADEA to challenge discriminatory actions that previously had harmed older workers and had unfairly barred them from earning a fair living and contributing to the national economy. During congressional debates about mandatory retirement age legislation, people became more aware of the ADEA, and the number of cases filed steadily increased. For example, there were only fifty-four hundred cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1978, but there were fifteen thousand cases filed in 1984.

Although the ADEA represents a significant step against age discrimination, it has not eliminated employment discrimination against older workers, for several reasons. The law protects older workers, but it does not prevent age discrimination against workers under the age of forty. The law permits employers to utilize bona fide occupational qualifications, such as physical fitness tests, for some jobs, which may disproportionately eliminate older people from specific jobs. Many workers remain unaware that they are protected by federal laws. The long process of filing claims with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can discourage some discrimination victims from pursuing claims. Likewise, the long and expensive process of civil litigation can deter people from pursuing their claims through the court system. In addition, it is often difficult to gather sufficient proof to succeed in court, even when discrimination actually exists.

Even though the ADEA shares the same practical limitations as other antidiscrimination laws, it represents a symbolic and practical statement of federal policy. The statute heightens the awareness of employers about the problems of age discrimination and serves to pressure employers to treat older workers fairly. Although age discrimination still exists, the ADEA gave older persons a valuable tool for battling against a kind of discrimination that was pervasive throughout the American labor market until 1967. Labor;age discrimination
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967)
Elderly rights

Further Reading

  • Brown, Robert N. The Rights of Older Persons. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. Provides readable descriptions of the various government laws and programs that affect older Americans. Discusses the history of relevant legislation. One chapter is devoted to discussion of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
  • Kendig, William L. Age Discrimination in Employment. New York: AMACOM, 1978. A brief description of the history and details of the ADEA. Written to inform business executives about how the statute operates.
  • Lindemann, Barbara T., and David D. Kadue. Age Discrimination in Employment Law. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs Books, 2003. An updated edition on the history of age discrimination legislation and law in the United States. Provides details of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Includes descriptions of the enforcement procedures involving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A massive volume at more than fifteen hundred pages.
  • Northrup, James P. Old Age, Handicapped, and Vietnam-Era Antidiscrimination Legislation. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Industrial Research Unit, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 1980. Describes events leading to the passage of the ADEA. Includes statistics that describe the composition of older workers within the American workforce.
  • Scheingold, Stuart A. The Politics of Rights: Lawyers, Public Policy, and Political Change. 2d ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. This well-known book provides description and analysis of the development of Americans’ consciousness about “rights.” Discusses how various groups and individuals attempt to shape government policy by seeking to attain protections and entitlements that they believe they should possess.

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