Senior citizen discounts are so commonplace that we rarely consider whether they might be considered discriminatory. Is it legal and ethical to offer special pricing based on nothing but a broad age group? Or are senior discounts a form of age discrimination? Like most legal and ethical issues, the question is not as simple as it seems on the surface. 

Senior Discounts: A Quick History

Are Senior Discounts Discrimination?

Image via Flickr by kate.gardiner

The image of senior citizens as a financially disadvantaged class has its roots in the Great Depression. Senior citizens who lived off their retirement savings were hit especially hard by bank failures in the early 1930s. They were likely to have earned their living as farmers or in independent business; they didn't have pensions to depend on.

Even those who were physically capable of labor couldn't compete for scarce jobs with younger workers. These seniors were left with no income or savings at all when the banks folded. The Social Security Program evolved because of their plight but came too late to help many of them. The Depression-era image of retirees as a vulnerable group prompted businesses to offer discounts as a kindness.

Why Discounts Endure

Seniors today live in a less precarious financial environment. Pensions and social security offer a safety net, and tax advantages have encouraged them to save for their retirement during their working years. However, their income sources often don't keep pace with inflation, and medical expenses or time spent in a nursing home can quickly wipe out a retired person's savings. Younger people who lose their jobs, savings, or home can often rebuild their finances, but a retiree's lower income potential due to outdated skills or poor health doesn't afford him or her the same luxury. A financial crisis can be catastrophic for an older adult.

Senior discounts are no longer just a kindness extended to a disadvantaged group. They are an important marketing tool. Seniors are notoriously careful shoppers, who take advantage of coupons and discounts. They are keenly aware of inflation, as they've seen the cost of living increase exponentially during their lifetimes. Business who want to attract seniors must offer discounts, especially if their competitors are offering them. In some industries, like movies and restaurants, it would be financial suicide for one business to drop the discounts. Also, like military discounts, many people view senior discounts as an expression of respect.

Are Senior Discounts Discriminatory?

On the surface, it seems like offering different pricing according to age might violate discrimination laws. But those laws are specific to employment. Anti-discrimination laws make it illegal to discriminate according to age, race, color, sex, military status, and other factors in matters of employment, such as hiring, firing, pay, promotions, and benefits. They don't prohibit special pricing or discounts. Offering discounts to seniors, women, and military personnel remains legal under the current set of laws.

The question of whether discounts can be legally challenged as discrimination was tested in Colorado a few years ago. Steve Horner, who describes himself as an "anti-feminist," filed several lawsuits alleging discrimination because of Ladies' Night specials. Some of the lawsuits were dismissed, and some went to mediation, but the practice continues unabated in the state.

The Future of Senior Discounts

Like Ladies' Nights and military discounts, markdowns for senior citizens are not illegal under current laws. The discounts are considered a good business practice, and no legislation is pending that might eliminate them. As baby boomers continue to grow older, the senior market is swelling. Businesses can't afford to be seen as insensitive to this massive group of consumers, and discounts are the perfect way to attract this notoriously frugal demographic. 

If the legal picture changes, or if the general perception of age-based discounts changes for the worse, businesses will still have options for attracting seniors with low prices. Discounts for AARP members is an obvious option, and discount "clubs" for seniors would surely flourish if senior discounts were outlawed. Targeting sales to seniors is another possibility. Newspaper ads featuring photos of older shoppers and sales on targeted merchandise will send a very clear picture — a picture likely to be missed altogether by younger shoppers, most of whom no longer read newspapers.

The ethical question of whether senior discounts are discriminatory may be complicated, but the legal situation is clear. As long as there are no laws against offering special pricing to seniors, age-based discounts will continue to be considered legal. The practice is so deeply entrenched in our retail environment, and so well suited to attracting this valuable demographic, that it can probably be expected to continue for a very long time unless new laws are passed.