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When is discrimination not discrimination? When it’s to do with age

by on May 29, 2015

Well that seems to be the take-home message of this article in the Financial Post on the ‘other’ Irish Referendum. You may not have heard about this; I hadn’t. But apparently there was a second referendum last week regarding the age at which one is eligible to run for President of Ireland. And the result was that the Irish voted “No” to reducing this age from 35 years to 21 by a resounding 75 per cent to 25.

What’s interesting is the argument (and it may be tongue-in-cheek) that this age ban isn’t age discrimination. The author suggests that the result shows how voters think of age discrimination as being different from other kinds of discrimination. And he suggests that it is. I’ve come across this contention before (though not so much recently). The argument is that ‘we don’t all experience being gay, straight, white, non-white, male, female…but on the other hand, we do, most of us, experience being 16, 18, 21, 35, 65, 75 and so on‘. He argues that the arbitrariness of age bars save us ‘the expense and anguish of a case-by-case evaluation to see who has reached sufficient maturity to take on — or be asked to give up — which particular responsibility‘.

Not all age bars operate in relation to matters of responsibility alone (they might apply to accessing services as in the warnings today in The Guardian about potential age discrimination in health care against the over 70s following publication of the UN health goals). But the wider point is that distinguishing age from other protected characteristics through this universal ageing argument can be used to challenge the justification for having age as a protected characteristic at all. It suggests a lack of fit between age and the equality model which can legitimize challenges to the appropriateness, utility, practicality and function of anti-discrimination policies in respect of age in the workplace.

I don’t know how many or even which other countries have an age limit on running for the top job. I’m sure we don’t  in the UK. The youngest Prime Minister to be appointed was William Pitt the Younger on 19 December 1783 at the age of 24 years, 6 months and 21 days (thank you, Wikipedia). Which neatly leads me to Blackadder’s parody of Pitt’s youthfulness….Pitt the Even Younger, Pitt the Embryo and Pitt the Glint in the Milkman’s Eye.


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