Q. Is it permissible to discriminate against workers based on their age?
A. In answering this question, we should distinguish between discrimination in hiring new workers and in letting go of old ones.
Discriminating against hiring older workers is not something prominently discussed in Jewish sources; there is no particular prohibition on giving preference to a younger individual if there are good reasons for favoring one. But it is worth keeping in mind that Jewish tradition generally has a very positive notion of the special abilities of older people. As a whole, the growth in wisdom with age is greatly emphasized, whereas the diminution of physical strength is not viewed as greatly significant.
We may point for example to the Mishna in Pirke Avot, which states that only at the age of 30 does a person attain strength; at 40, insight; at 50 a person obtains judgment. The Mishna goes on to say that at 80 a person attains might! Only after the age of 80 do the descriptions begin to present a picture of deterioration: at 90 a person is stooped over and at 100 he is practically gone from the world. (1)
So while Jewish law doesn't forbid giving preference to a younger person if we are convinced he can do a better job, Jewish tradition should lead us to examine if our stereotypes are justified. It is not unlikely that if we looked at all the parameters of ability including experience, judgment and maturity we would reach the conclusion that the older candidate is better qualified.
Regarding older workers who are already employed, we find more specific guidance in Jewish sources. The Mishna discusses a wife who inherits older slaves from her parents; it states that often the economically prudent thing to do is to sell them and buy some other asset, like land. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel then states that even if this is the most favorable choice economically, it is better to refrain from letting go of these faithful servants, for they are "the glory of her father's household." (2) From this we can learn that an older worker who has served a firm faithfully over a period of many years is the glory of the firm; such a person should be let go only with the greatest reluctance.
The story is told that a generation ago the administration at the Tiferet Yerushalaim yeshiva in New York felt it was necessary to dismiss an older janitor who had worked for many years at the yeshiva, due to budgetary constraints. The head of the yeshiva was the great Jewish leader Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He told the administration that they should keep this man on despite his advanced age and the yeshiva's limited budget, in recognition of his long service to the school. This is a model that other organizations should strive to emulate when possible.
(1) Mishna Avot 5:21.
(2) Babyolonian Talmud Ketubot 79b.
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in honor of my wonderful, ethical parents
Bennett & Ellen Zarren.
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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.
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