A fifth of all Germans say they have been discriminated against based on age at some point in their lives. Age discrimination is not just a problem for older people - young people encounter it too.
Article 3 of Germany's constitution lays down clear guidelines when it comes to discrimination, but age is notably absent from the list: "No one shall be favored or disfavored on the basis of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith or religious or political convictions."
Ten years ago, Germany still had no clear law forbidding discrimination on the basis of being too young or too old. That changed with passage of the General Equal Treatment Act (Allgemeinen Gleichbehandlungsgesetz) in 2006.
"Discrimination comes up in various arenas but especially in the working world," said Bernhard Franke of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, adding, "We have people come to us again and again who feel like they are being sorted out and have no chance at being invited to an interview."
A total of 20 percent of German residents in a nation-wide survey conducted by the FORSA polling agency in the fall of 2011 reported they had been discriminated against on the basis of age at least once.
Many assume that age discrimination concerns just older people. In the same FORSA survey, more than half of those over 60 who were polled agreed with the following sentence: "After age 45, you can hardly get a job these days."
But it is not just seniors who feel that they are affected by age discrimination. Around a third of those in the 18 to 29 range felt that their age played to their disadvantage, and employers viewed them as too young for certain positions.
"This result shocked us, that so many people in this group in particular would feel discriminated against due to age," said Franke, who also pointed out that the passage of the anti-discrimination law in 2006 began to make people aware that a problem exists at all.
"You could say that forbidding age discrimination also makes people more sensitive to it happening," he said.
The law allows those who feel they have faced age discrimination to bring civil suits or have their case heard by employment law courts. A recent example came in March, when the Federal Labor Court disallowed a sliding scale for vacation days based on age among civil servants. Until the court ruling, employees under 30 were allowed 26 days annually, those aged 30 to 40 were granted 29 days, and those over 40 enjoyed 30 days, but public employers must now offer 30 days to everyone.
The cost of equality
Bernhard Franke sees the ruling as a success story that can be traced to the new law.
"If this kind of contract stipulation is declared illegal, then that has a big impact," he said. But not everyone is joining him in applauding the ruling.
The judges' decision brings hefty costs for employers, said Manfred Hoffmann, who heads a German umbrella organization for civil employers.
"The verdict means a significant burden for municipal employers," he said, telling the Evangelischer Pressedienst press agency that raising the vacation days for all employees to 30 days will lead to a loss of 1.6 million work days per year. "That leads to added costs of around 250 million euros ($328 million) annually."
Government contracts are not the only ones affected by the new law. German airline Lufthansa was recently forced to change its labor agreement with 4,200 employees. The reason: three pilots went before the European Court of Justice to challenge a stipulation that pilots over 60 must retire, and the judges agreed with the pilots. The airline is now at work on a new contract that will make it possible to work voluntarily after one's 60th birthday and that also changes retirement packages for all other pilots.
The court's ruling spoke to many Germans: polls show that 81 percent of the population is against a strict retirement age of 67 years and wants to see more flexible pension arrangements.
'Year against age discrimination'
The Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency is going on the offensive when it comes to the problem, aiming to promote awareness of age-related issues. The government office has made 2012 the year against age discrimination, creating a new commission to deal with the topic.
"Its members will examine the role of age limits in various areas - in terms of labor law but also in civil law, with banks and insurance companies. The goal is to work out concrete suggestions for dismantling those constraints and then presenting them to politicians and other partners," Franke explained.
The Anti-Discrimination Agency is also organizing events across the country in cooperation with schools, senior centers, NGOs and cultural institutions with the aim of promoting dialogue between generations. A donation drive is also being held in Hamburg this week.
Organizers hope the slogan for the programs in 2012: "Im besten Alter - immer" (In your prime - always) will raise awareness of age discrimination - and also help to combat it.
Author: Friedel Taube / gsw
Editor: Spencer Kimball