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"Age discrimination in the workplace has always been harder to identify and quantify than race and sex discrimination," writes Michael Winerip in the New York Times. "Blacks and women have experienced a long history of being underpaid, which researchers can calculate in salary differentials. The math is less straightforward for older workers. They may have been unfairly demoted, and yet still earn more than their younger co-workers."
In the experiment, 137 Princeton undergraduates were shown a video of a man named Max, ostensibly their partner in a trivia contest. Three different actors played Max in the video -- one 75-year-old, one 45-year-old, and one 25-year-old.
Each version of Max answered a series of questions. Half the time, all three Maxes varied on one single question, describing themselves as people who would (or wouldn't) share a financial windfall with a relative.
Students had no preference between the assertive and compliant Maxes, as long as they were viewing the 25-year-old or 45-year-old versions. When it came to the 75-year-old Max, however, their opinion changed. The older actor earned a "high negative" rating when he answered assertively.
"If you want to be an aging gray panther, and speak your mind to your manager, that's fine," Fiske says. "But expect consequences."
Fiske and North's study will be published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and, along with similar research by other academics, could ultimately affect age discrimination lawsuits in the future.
Recent changes to federal law make it harder for plaintiffs to win court cases based on age discrimination. Prior to the 2009 Supreme Court Case Gross v. EBL Financial Services, plaintiffs only had to prove that age was a factor in their dismissal; now they must prove that it was the proximate cause of the dismissal.
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