“The Federal Government Can and Should Provide Maximum Leadership”: The Problem of Age Discrimination and the Failure of Executive Order 11141, 1956–65

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 12:30 PM
Conference Room C (Sheraton New York)
Benjamin Hellwege, City University of New York, Graduate Center
In early 1964, after much internal contention, the Johnson administration issued Executive Order 11141, which sought to provide “maximum leadership” by the federal government on the issue of age discrimination in the workplace. Though the order was largely unsung at the time of its issuance, it represented the first time that the federal government had taken proactive measures to deal with the issue of age discrimination. Yet, for a variety of reasons, the order failed to accomplish its stated purpose, and was largely dead on arrival despite the hopes of its progenitors.

Taking the story of Executive Order 11141 as its point of departure, this paper explores the long, slow evolution of “age discrimination” as a social problem during the post-World War II period and asks why it came to be seen by policymakers as worthy of federal intervention over the course of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Furthermore, this paper seeks to locate the growing momentum for federal action on the issue of age discrimination within the larger framework of rights-based liberalism and civil rights activism during the Great Society.

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