Sunday, May 09, 2010


Several weeks ago I wrote a column in response to a reader who wondered if there was anything wrong with letting others use the senior discounts he enjoys at his local movie theater, golf club and so on. I believed that it was wrong for him to "share the savings" with others who were not seniors, as it would also be wrong for him to get a child to buy his movie tickets to take advantage of a children's price.

A reader from Columbus, Ohio, responded with a note that he agreed with me - OK, that he "perhaps" agreed with me - but I was ignoring the real ethical question raised by the earlier letter.

"The larger issue here is age discrimination," he writes.

My reader's problem is not with the misuse of senior discounts, in short, but with senior discounts themselves.

"I know senior discounts are everywhere and are accepted by most people," he continues, "but I think age discrimination is wrong ... The rest of us pay more if seniors get a discount."

Seniors may think they deserve the discount, my reader adds, but he doesn't think so.

"They already get tax breaks, Social Security, Medicare and pension benefits that younger persons will never get," he writes. "The argument that seniors are poorer is no justification for age discrimination."

He concludes that senior discounts are legal only because politicians pander to senior votes, and wants me to speak out against these "unethical senior discounts."

I hate to disagree with my readers, but in this case I must. I see nothing wrong with such discounts.

A senior discount is not an effort to punish the rest of us for not being old enough, but rather an attempt to improve business. Having noticed that seniors - who have distinctive spending habits, including greater brand loyalty and a tendency to patronize the same businesses regularly - are a valuable market, various movie theaters, golf clubs and other businesses have decided to encourage their patronage by offering them a discount. If instead or in addition they also offered discounts to students, military veterans, repeat customers or the like, as many do, that too would be a strategic decision, not a discriminatory one.

I like to think that such discounts are motivated by the desire to recognize a group for some merit - defending our country, supporting the business or, in the case of seniors, a lifetime of contributions to our society - rather than by political pandering. Even if they're intended to curry favor with a particular group, though, that's OK. There's nothing wrong with a movie theater that's trying to build an audience at a local college deciding to offer a special price break to students, for example.

A benefit extended to members of one group is not automatically a discrimination against members of another. It would be unethical to deliberately charge seniors more or, for that matter, to deliberately charge people younger than 64 more. But to establish a base price that applies to all and admit exceptions for certain groups is not to discriminate against everybody else. A restaurant that gives away food to the homeless is not discriminating against people with homes.

Those paying full freight may not like it when a group to which they don't belong receives a break on prices, but not liking something doesn't make it unethical. The right thing for my reader to do is to accept that some businesses place particular value on elderly citizens and offer them price breaks as an enticement to use their goods and services.

If this doesn't sit well with him ... Well, he's welcome to patronize establishments that don't offer such discounts or, if he can't find one, to stay home from the movies. If enough customers are of a similar mind, senior discounts will soon be a thing of the past.

I don't think that will be the case, however, so instead I'm hoping that my reader will live a long, healthy life and, in the fullness of time, be in a position to avail himself of senior discounts for many years to come.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why do people always want to find fault with an established method of giving a break in giving discounts to Seniors? In a way, instead of hurting the people like your correspondent who is against the discounts, the businesses who offer these discounts are assuring themselves of more business - from seniors who want to take advantage of the discounts and from other people, who are able to take advantage of having businesses which are thus able to increase their clientle and have better pricing favorable to all customers. There is something a little grasping and jealous in the hearts of persons who are forever against anyone getting a break they themselves probably don't need.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC