We All Get Older – But No One Likes Being Called a “Hairbag”

My guess is that most people — maybe not all – would not like to be called a hairbag.

What’s a “hairbag??” (No, not that).

A New York Times article today informs us … but first let’s step back a little…

Recall that before I took a hiatus from blogging some months ago, I had a penchant for collecting ageist slurs or code words about older employees which I found in decisions and lawsuits, and warned employers that such words were not likely to be taken lightly by litigants or courts when age discrimination was at issue.

I have often blogged:

“Perhaps some employers think that they can escape being caught discriminating against older people if they code their language. Or maybe they are just used to making ageist comments because they have, as the EEOC has said, ‘outdated prejudices and biases.’ Either way, these comments may be seen as code words, or perhaps in political parlance — ‘dog-whistle’ expressions, which are designed to ‘convey a predetermined meaning to a receptive audience, while remaining inconspicuous to the uninitiated.’ “For example, you do not call an employee ‘old’ or ‘ancient’ (I once had a case where the boss referred to another employee of the same age as the one he fired as “ancient”) since that is direct evidence of age discrimination. You stay away from calling an employee ‘old school,’ or ‘set in his ways,’ or ‘not a proper fit for the “new environment,’ or ‘lacking in energy.’ And, of yes, ‘Hang up your Superman Cape,’ and ‘get it together you f…. old people’ should also be avoided (although the latter remark can hardly be considered particularly well “coded”).” The same with ‘looks old,’ ‘sounds old on the telephone,’ and is ‘like a bag of bones.’”  

“Bag of bones” … that I get. But “hairbag??”

No, not that either.

The Times reports that a lawsuit was just filed by a “decorated detective … who had the plum assignment of guarding Mayor Bill de Blasio. He claims he was forced out of the mayor’s security detail and nudged into retirement this year at age 56 because his commanders regarded him as a relic.”

OK, but what’s a hairbag?

Closer … but no.

He alleges that “his supervisor called him a ‘hairbag’ behind his back, which [he] says is evidence that older officers are viewed with suspicion and disdain.” He says, that a “hairbag is an older cop, a burned-out cop, who doesn’t want to do anything and doesn’t care anymore. … It was disgusting. Do I look like a hairbag?”

Ok, but I still don’t know what a hairbag is!!!

Police officers have long been noted for employing colorful slang, and code, for almost anything. And it seems, according to the Times, that “hairbag” is “an archaic bit of slang with obscure origins. In police parlance, ‘the bag’ means ‘the uniform.’ So some officers believe ‘hairbag’ is a riff on a longtime officer’s uniform — so old it has become hairy — and describes veterans who know what the police call ‘The Job’ inside out.”

Oh … so that’s a hairbag! A hairy old uniform.   Pretty obscure, no? But I get the point.  (The Times did mention that there are other theories of the term’s derivation, but I like this one).

Anyway, add that to my pantheon of ageist comments that are used to marginalize older employees and push them out of a job. As one lawyer said, “Nowadays, you don’t always hear the direct discrimination and ageist comments of, ‘advanced stage of your career’, ‘you should retire.”

As I wrote before, quoting “the forever young Dick Van Dyke, who was then 90” (know who he is, young ‘uns??) that age discrimination may be “the last acceptable discrimination.” He noted that he was told by a salesperson at a Tommy Hilfiger store that “I don’t think you’ll find anything you like here,” and by another salesperson elsewhere that “I don’t think you could afford that.”

He commented that “It’s sad because elderly people used to be respected for their experience and wisdom but they get sidelined and it’s too bad.”


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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]