Does Age Impact Ethics?

Michael Douglas’s movie “The Solitary Man” depicts a story of a high-profile businessman becoming a criminal. It is riches to rags story, where Ben, the character played by Douglas is reduced to asking his daughter home rent. The movie makes one contemplate – does age impact ethics? Watch these last scenes of the movie first.

The crucial point in the conversation is when Michael Douglas says – “No one noticed”. He changed from being a faithful husband to sleeping around with young women, because his wife didn’t notice. He shifted from being an honest businessman to a fraudster because no one noticed. The crux of crime – opportunity, reward and rationalization. When no one notices or stops you, it became easy to rationalize criminal behavior.

In another scene of the movie, he says to his friend Jimmy – “In the highest moments and lowest moments of life, you are all alone. On the cover of Forbes magazine, I am by myself. In business magazine cover with handcuffs, I am by myself.” As is the cliché it is lonely at the top. Does the isolation at senior level positions impact psychology and behavior?

Since very few juniors will confront a senior or CEO on unethical behavior, it becomes easier to rationalize. As seniors do not receive negative feedback they remain unaware of the impact of their behavior on juniors and the organization. Social intelligence antenna works on receiving direct and honest information. With diplomatic responses, some miss the signals.

One more critical comment that describes his psychology on ageing was – “I was becoming invisible. Thirty years ago the room changed when I entered. I was a lion.” With age no one noticed him and his ego couldn’t take it. He compensated it by chasing young women.

Douglas couldn’t transition from the sense of invincibility that comes with success and youth, to being just another mortal, whose significance diminished with age. Hence, he broke all social and ethical norms to delude himself into feeling powerful.

In all careers the change is significant. Before retirement, one is generally at the highest level of their career, and suddenly on retirement, the people whom one was working with don’t have time for the person. A person deals with loss of self-esteem, insecurities and feelings of vulnerability. Each retiring person treads this uncertain path; however huge the savings and retirement plans he/she has kept.

Moreover, statistical data shows that old people are subjected to extensive verbal and emotional abuse at home. A survey by Helpage India indicates Bangalore as the number one city in India for mistreating elders. Previously Bangalore was known as pensioners paradise, and now 44% elders say they face abuse at home. In upper strata of society sons mistreat, and in the lower-income group, daughter-in-laws abuse. India, a country where youngsters respected elders by touching their feet, is fast becoming a nation that abuses elders. Further, as India does not have a social security system, if elders do not have sufficient savings, they are financially dependent on the younger generation, mostly sons. As India has a huge young population, a second job after retirement is difficult. Hence, living separately is not an alternative available to many retired people.

The sense of financial insecurity increases propensity of fraud of  employees near retirement age.  Various surveys state that the frauds conducted by older and senior employees are much larger in value than junior employees. The focus on training senior employees on business ethics is low, as organizations assume that old hands are aware of the norms and culture. However, since outward behavior is normal, colleagues don’t realize when the person has snapped inside. Therefore, this group requires more focus than normally given.

Ideas for Action

1.  Organizations can handhold older employees prepare transition plans for retirement. Coaching employees on developing second source of income through developing different talents and hobbies will benefit. An active alumni group for retired employees helps in keeping their social circle intact. If organization provides pension benefits, including medical insurance generates confidence.

2. Employees themselves may develop supplementary business ventures near retirement. For instance, civil engineers in India generally buy residential properties and farmlands. After retirement they venture into real estate and farming.

3. Relationships with family and friends matter. Irrespective of the amount of money available after retirement, without family support one leads an unhappy life. Hence, employees must keep up work-life balance and focus on relationships outside office.

4. Organizations need to train employees that frauds do not contribute positively to retirement funds. The probability of legal penalties and miserable old age are high. With rising inflation and government targeting black money, illicit money put away in lockers is not a viable option. To mitigate this risk give refresher business ethics courses to older employees annually.

5.  Companies to detect fraud propensities must periodically conduct a background verification and credit check of old employees to confirm their financial position. For instance, in a few cases employees develop gambling, drugs or alcohol addictions. They conduct frauds to fund these addictions. A background verification discloses these deviations.

6. India socially has two challenges – lack of old age homes and a social stigma if any person seeks psychological help. Psychological abuse remains an unmentionable issue.Hence, abused elders don’t have any alternatives. They cannot seek outside medical or other help as they attempt to protect family reputation. Organizations in their corporate social responsibility programs can  build awareness about these two aspects.

Closing Thoughts

India’s transition from a developing country to global powerhouse has eroded Indian culture and social values. Adoption of western culture has benefited is some aspects. However, western societies challenges of lack of family support system are ignored. This has resulted in creating a number of social problems in Indian society. Balancing the advantages of western and Indian culture and addressing the negatives will benefit the society. Achieving economic growth at the expense of certain sections of society will harm the social fabric and destroy moral values. This old story says it all :

Devil appeared before a middle-aged man. The man was worried that his career wasn’t doing well and he  won’t have any retirement funds. The devil said – “I will ensure that you and your future generations will never have any financial problems, if you give me your soul.” The man agreed. Devil continued – “And the souls of your children, their children and all future generations.” The man again agreed and asked – “What’s the catch?”


Daughters-in-law emerge as major abuser of elderly: Study

5 comments on “Does Age Impact Ethics?

  1. The flaw in the Michael Douglas character’s thinking is, someone did notice . . . maybe not the world, but that should be secondary anyway. One’s own being, his character’s own soul, the entirety of who he is noticed.

    It shouldn’t be his wife or family’s job to point out flaws; the mirror should do it, whether a metaphoric one or staring at our physical being and realizing the right vs. the wrong way.

    It is that integrity of deeds and actions, doing what feels right in the gut with a personal core code of conduct driving us, keeping us, and ultimately rewarding us with success on our terms.

    Age should influence ethics like the road we follow through life, weaving from lane-to-lane early in our youth, will through experiences and aging show the right way by narrowing those lanes down to a very tight and strict boundry with no shoulders, almost like ethical tracks are now laid as their replacement.

    As said in Sam Peckinpah’s acclaimed western, “Ride the High Country, ” then, and only then, can we “enter our house justified.”

    Phillip Gary Smith
    Founding member of CUBE speakers, a group specializing in ethical shows

    • Philip,

      Thank you for sharing your views. I agree with you, that we ourselves are responsible for determining right or wrong. And ensuring that we do good karma.

      However, studies like Kohlberg ( point out that most of the world population does not have a high moral development. Even if you see Heinz dilemma, most are in the first four stages mentioned below. Hence, the role of other people becomes critical to give feedback and straighten a person’s course of action. Expecting everyone to figure out everything about themselves is kind of extremely high expectation, as most people have blind spots. Moreover, even if some figure out the problems, it is difficult for the ego to accept. If ego accepts, it is difficult to break out of old habits. Hence, if the people one cares about give feedback and support timely, it is more constructive than ignoring the issue altogether. Because most people assume that no negative information is good news and only realize that they are on the wrong track when they are too far gone.

      Additionally, in present day environment, success is getting equated to money. Hence, we as a society need to focus on changing that definition. Money is just one component of successful life. Life involves various other facets, and these are equally important. Materialism is negatively driving us. One of my favorites saying is – poverty is not in the bank balance, it is in the mind. When you decide that you have sufficient money, you feel rich. A person with just 10 sets of clothes may be living a much happier and fulfilling life than someone with 100 or a 1000. We see rich actors and singers leading miserable life, to the point of committing suicide, that clearly shows money doesn’t amount to fulfillment. It is just a question about drawing a line.

      Here is the extract below of Heinz dilemma.

      A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

      Should Heinz have broken into the store to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

      From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do. Kohlberg’s theory holds that the justification the participant offers is what is significant, the form of their response. Below are some of many examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages:
      Stage one (obedience): Heinz should not steal the medicine because he will consequently be put in prison which will mean he is a bad person. Or: Heinz should steal the medicine because it is only worth $200 and not how much the druggist wanted for it; Heinz had even offered to pay for it and was not stealing anything else.
      Stage two (self-interest): Heinz should steal the medicine because he will be much happier if he saves his wife, even if he will have to serve a prison sentence. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because prison is an awful place, and he would more likely languish in a jail cell than over his wife’s death.
      Stage three (conformity): Heinz should steal the medicine because his wife expects it; he wants to be a good husband. Or: Heinz should not steal the drug because stealing is bad and he is not a criminal; he has tried to do everything he can without breaking the law, you cannot blame him.
      Stage four (law-and-order): Heinz should not steal the medicine because the law prohibits stealing, making it illegal. Or: actions have consequences.
      Stage five (human rights): Heinz should steal the medicine because everyone has a right to choose life, regardless of the law. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine because the scientist has a right to fair compensation. Even if his wife is sick, it does not make his actions right.
      Stage six (universal human ethics): Heinz should steal the medicine, because saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person. Or: Heinz should not steal the medicine, because others may need the medicine just as badly, and their lives are equally significant.

      Kind regards,


  2. Hi Sonia,
    Nice article though in my view, i dont think its the age which impacts ethics. Considering Donald cressey’s fraud triangle, its the opportunity which is the main culprit. Mostly elderly people find themselves in a senior management positions thereby they have an opportunity to exploit it.
    My belief is that most individuals are self-centered and they only bother about their own gratification. If left without proper oversight, any individual would be tempted. More the reason for strong oversight!
    People will engage in criminal and deviant activities if they do not fear apprehension and punishment. This is hard-wired within us.

    • Lalit,

      Thanks for the compliment. Agree with you that opportunity without oversight is the main culprit. The other point we miss out is that youngsters mostly are ethical even with comparatively smaller salaries is because they have lessor responsibilities and a long career path to go ahead, specially if they are professionally qualified. So they have time to earn money and satisfy their dreams.

      On the other hand, older people have responsibilities and those who are driven by money as a motivator, feel they have missed the boat if they haven’t earned X million dollars by a certain time. Hence, greed motivates them, with the idea that they don’t have the opportunity to earn by legal means or on their own skill set. If they are not confident about their capabilities, they use unfair or illegal means to earn.

      Again self-interest is dependent on moral development level. If seniors are put whose moral development stage as per Kholberg model is in initial stages, the likelihood of fraud and other improper behavior is higher.

      Deviant behavior is hard wired only in people on the lower scale of moral development. Others even is opportunity was given, would not do it. Simply because their conscience will not permit the rationalization. If it was not so, 90% of the population would have murdered each other. On other hand, it is just 10% of the population who is prone to violence and negative behavior. That itself is the reason humanity prevails. Normal people respect each other, and are not likely to do anything to another just for the heck of it or because they can get away with it.


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