Age Discrimination: An Historical and Contemporary Analysis.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Troyansky, David G.
Pub Date: 12/22/2008
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Winter, 2008 Source Volume: 42 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: Age Discrimination: An Historical and Contemporary Analysis (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Macnicol, John
Accession Number: 191688788
Full Text: Age Discrimination: An Historical and Contemporary Analysis. By John Macnicol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. x plus 308 pp.).

The subject of John Macnicol's book is both narrower and broader than its title would indicate: narrower in that its focus is on twentieth-century Britain, with rich comparative coverage of the United States; broader in that it looks not only at age discrimination in terms of attitudes and labor law but also at major issues in the history of aging and retirement in both countries. It historicizes and finds compelling a social scientific literature from the mid-twentieth century that became normative in gerontology and retirement economics. Its comparison between Britain and the U.S. reveals parallels in the framing of socio-economic questions as well as a surprisingly sophisticated approach to retirement and disability in an American political landscape usually characterized by a weak welfare state. Questions of civil rights provided a stimulus for American debate about ageism, while similar issues of demographic aging, technological change, disability, and age discrimination legislation were found on both sides of the Atlantic.

The book begins with definitions of ageism and age discrimination and asks whether movement of older people from the workplace has been a function of discrimination or of economic forces, such as concentration in older, declining industries or lack of skills to compete for jobs in new ones. That question introduces the history of the spread of retirement in the twentieth century. As he has done in a previous books, Macnicol traces the transition from what he calls "infirmity" retirement to "jobless" retirement. (1) Whether jobless retirement resulted from large economic forces and decisions by employers or individual choices by aging workers has been a subject of considerable debate. Macnicol summarizes the situation as follows: "Broadly speaking, historical accounts of the spread of retirement can be divided into those that emphasise a decline in the supply of older workers, and those that emphasise a decline in the demand for the labour of older workers ... Is retirement a consumer durable that we have 'invented'--or has it been forced upon us as modern capitalist economies have steadily dispensed with the labour of older men?" (pp. 38-39). Macnicol sees the distinction as heuristic and the truth as combining elements of both. "Supply-siders" point to greater financial wherewithal and the emergence of a "retirement expectation." Thus, retirement is a gain, a promise of leisure, and people retire because they have sufficient income, savings, social security, and projects for late life.

While recognizing merits on both sides of the argument, Macnicol comes down on the demand side of the debate. For him, economies since the 1890s have shed older workers. It is a story of technological change, scientific management, a rise in female employement, and other factors. Any "retirement expectation" is then a matter of adjustment to market displacement rather than free choice. In this context, mandatory retirement is seen as a convenient alternative to assessment of performance by individual workers. But in a world of earlier exit from work, before any mandated age, Macnicol sees mandatory retirement as a red herring. Still, it has been the occasion for discussion of discrimination, and he poses the question: "how far are unequal outcomes by age the product of age discrimination, and low far are they the result of other factors?" (p. 46) Are debates about age discrimination debates about social justice, or are they part of "an attack on the welfare rights of older people," (p. 47) a way of returning them to the workplace? Before addressing that question most directly at the end of the book, Macnicol explores the literature on intergenerational justice, offers a critical look at British New labour policies, and surveys aspects of the history of old age.

The chapter on justice between generations focuses primarily on debates about health care rationing and provides a theoretical framework for much of the book, but it warns against too abstract an approach. The idea of generations, after all, lumps diverse populations together in age categories, and particular generations exist in specific historical circumstances. The chapter on New Labour introduces the reader to a contemporary debate about demographic aging, male early retirement, and ideas of returning older people to the workplace in a so-called "active society." The central chapters in the book then look back-ward to a century's history of health status, work-disability, and retirement. This movement back and forth in time can be confusing, but Macnicol makes the observation that the terms of contemporary debates emerged out of a lengthy history. He traces early gerontological literature, remarks upon a post-World War II slowing of a long-term trend to male early retirement, and presents a trio of models of aging and health. First is the "compression of morbidity" model, an optimistic view of disability-free old age as sickness is pushed to the extreme. A more pessimistic model describes the "failure of success," as reduced mortality is accompanied by rising rates of morbidity. Those two views provide the background for much contemporary discussion of the politics of aging, but Macnicol shows that there is reason, in looking at late-twentieth-century data, to opt for a third way, a "dynamic equilibrium" model in which people survive, fall ill, manage health effectively, and adopt healthy diets and modes of behavior.

The last part of the book, an investigation into the U.S. Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, pushes the reader back in time once more and Macnicol follows his history of the origins of that legislation with a brief study of age discrimination cases. He claims that "it is the improved social security income that has transformed the status of older Americans, rather than the ADEA. There may be a lesson here for Britain" (p. 262). The book's conclusion makes clear that Macnicol's aim is to use the historical record to understand current and future political dilemmas. The real issue for him is the importance of labor markets and assaults on welfare rights in the lives of the aged.


(1.) See The Politics of Retirement in Britain, 1878-1948 (Cambridge, 1998).

David G.Troyansky

Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center

City University of New York
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