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No other single law has done more to debunk the “myths of the worn-out worker,” as a one-time AARP writer put it, than the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). As a deterrent to crafty employers seeking to downsize, or as a legal defense in the courts, the ADEA has helped chip away at views of older workers as rigid, inadaptable, slow and accident-prone, views that color attitudes toward them and prevent us from seeing them as a valuable resource. The ADEA put teeth behind the notion that employees, particularly those above 40, should be judged on their abilities, not their age, a signature AARP principle. An offspring of the civil rights era, the ADEA has stood for four decades as the primary guarantor of the rights of older workers. It has gracefully weathered judicial tinkering over the years, and has succeeded in fulfilling its statutory purpose: to protect workers older than 40 from arbitrary age discrimination. To be sure, there is much to celebrate about the ADEA, landmark legislation in every sense of the word. At the same time, there is room for vigilance. A view gaining currency in some circles suggests that the ADEA may face a host of fresh legal challenges as the competitive economy squeezes employer payrolls. The ADEA is, after all, a living, breathing and evolving law that, to some extent, will reflect prevailing social conditions, politics and dynamics between the judicial and legislative branches of government. The main task ahead for advocates of older workers is to urge its broadest possible interpretation at every turn. For AARP, this means advocating in support of the ADEA, and telling the stories of older workers who are targeted because of their age, things the association has been doing for more than 30 years. As early as 1976, AARP moved to modify the ADEA to bar the inclusion of a mandatory retirement age in any employment agreement. This effort bore fruit in 1986, when an amendment was passed eliminating mandatory retirement by striking all references to upper age limitations. Later work on securing pension accruals and extending ADEA protection to state employees also proved successful. Executive Order No. 11141, issued by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 with a view to setting a policy against age discrimination, notes the following in its preamble: “Whereas older workers are an indispensable source of productivity and experience which our Nation can ill afford to lose.” These words � in many ways the essence of what came to be the ADEA � continue to echo through judicial and legislative chambers across the country. Thanks to the ADEA, there is growing recognition that negative stereotypes of older workers are not only a violation of federal law, but also bad business. Today’s older workers are better educated than those in the past, healthier and more interested in remaining in the work force. They also are likely to be needed in the face of anticipated labor shortages. And research by global professional services firm Towers Perrin, for AARP, showed that hiring and retaining 50-plus workers is a sound investment that benefits business and society as a whole. Thank you, ADEA, for celebrating the contributions of older workers. Thomas C. Nelson is the chief operating officer at AARP.

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