Tackling ageism at work against older people

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The number of older people in work has increased hugely, with 1.19 million people aged 65 and older in work in the summer of 2016.

Compare this to ten years earlier when just 609,000 of those aged above 65 were in work and it becomes clear just how significant a cultural shift is underway. As we’re all living longer and healthier lives, the need for older people to work becomes more and more acute – and yet, the problem of ageism in the workplace is one that will not go away.

‘Negative attitudes to older people are pervasive across society,’ says Ian Thomas, CEO of Age Cymru. ‘But the key is that these attitudes are based on inaccurate stereotypes.’ For Thomas, the problem is ‘assumptions about a person’s ability and confidence’; and despite pensionable age increasing, ‘people who try to come back to work in their 50s and upwards can experience significant and often unexpected difficulties.’ As a result, tackling age discrimination at work ‘is a big feature in our work.’

The Equalities Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of age. But is the Act fit for purpose, or do we need more legislation to stop what is clearly still a problem? ‘In terms of what it sets out to do, the legislation is a good thing. Who wouldn’t argue for it?’ says Thomas. ‘The truth is that the intent is good but we’re not seeing it enacted effectively.’ Thomas quotes the experience of a man aged 61 who had been for 200 interviews. ‘I was astounded that someone keeps on trying that much, but this is the scenario for many older people – the only feedback he got was to “keep on trying”. I think employers have a duty to give better feedback than that.’ Thomas argues that people who have been out of work for five or six years ‘can tell as soon as they go into an interview what the result is going to be from the body language of the interviewer. They get the interview – but as soon as they are in the room, people can make value judgements and that’s what’s wrong.’

What does Thomas want to see going forward? ‘Our position is that we believe people should be able to remain in work for as long as they desire to and are capable of doing so.’ Thomas acknowledges that capability is an element. ‘However, you should not be discriminated against simply because you’re older – and tackling that is one of our key issues.’ We’ve all been for jobs we haven’t got, Thomas adds, ‘and that’s fair enough. But awarding someone a job should be on merit, and I don’t think older people are seeing that as fairly as they should do.’

The benefits of age

When you are older, you are more experienced, you are likely to have wider knowledge, you can mentor younger people, and there are many ‘soft skills’ that are very useful too – diplomacy, maturity and the ability to be a wise head for younger people look up to. It’s hard to quantify discrimination, but it is true to say that a positive, diverse culture that supports the inclusion of older workers makes for a healthier, positive workforce – and a better bottom line for the organisation.

The situation has improved vastly since compulsory retirement legislation was repealed in 2011. A former Tourist Information Centre manager who wanted to stay anonymous reached retirement age just months before this legislation came into force. ‘Because I really didn’t want to retire, I looked at other options – there was the possibility to reapply for the role post-65 but there were conditions attached, one of which was that you may not get the same job in the same place. So it was rather loaded against the employee – I decided to take the hint and leave, but I very much wish I had been just that bit younger. My arm was twisted, shall we say.’ The manager cites depression as a result of the decision. ‘We were offered a voluntary retirement course which I attended and found one of the most disillusioning experiences of my life.’

Institutional ageism?

‘From 40, you can start to disappear and not get noticed, and this is particularly the case for women,’ says Jane Kiln, a Counselling and Social Care Supervisor. Is this a form of deeply embedded ageism at work? ‘It can be hard to know whether that’s down to your age, in terms of people thinking you’re “past it” and don’t have anything to contribute any more; or simply because your face doesn’t fit.’ Ageism probably runs deeper in the workplace than we realise, on this reckoning. ‘People can simply be patronising – and you suspect it’s because you’re older.’ What advice is there to ensure as a society we are alert to this? ‘Don’t discount people due to how they look. The wisdom of older people is an asset – it should be seen as such. Older people have far more to offer – and can have far more energy – than they are often given credit for.’ Yes, ageism is hard to prove, but we know it’s there. And as for the benefits of including older people in your workforce, for Kiln ‘you have more experience of life. You are more robust and have examples to look back on and use as a measure. Those experiences serve you well, whereas being inexperienced can get you into hot water.’

However, Kiln adds, older people in the workforce have a responsibility to themselves too. ‘You can occasionally hear people saying, “I’ve got fifteen years’ experience so why am I on this training course.” It’s important to refresh your skills and knowledge, and we are never too old to learn. Indeed, older people should be given more opportunities to learn – there is ageism too in denying people training if there is the sense that they might only be working for another five or six years. That is an entirely wrong approach to take.’

If you experience ageism at work – steps you can take

  • Speak to your employer. Ask for a meeting with HR and outline your issues. Under the Equality Act, you are entitled to work in an environment that does not discriminate against you on the basis of age. Your workplace has a duty to take your complaint seriously. Try to be clear about what outcomes you want to see – a simple apology, or does someone need to be retrained?
  • Ask for mediation. If an informal talk does not resolve the situation but you don’t want to go as far as litigation, ask for a mediation session. A mediator will listen to both sides of the story and try to resolve it to mutual satisfaction.
  • If this still doesn’t work, you can take your employer to an employment tribunal. However, there are fees involved and advice should be sought before committing to this path.
  • Above all, be positive. ‘We want people to challenge,’ says Ian Thomas, ‘but we also know that many people become so disillusioned by the system if they feel discriminated against that they retreat.’ Being clear about what you have been subjected to, keeping a focus on what it is that you want from work and being able to address the problem with clarity and perspective will help.

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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