By Peter Brooks
Age discrimination can affect older people, younger people and those returning to work after a long absence, for instance full-time child-care. It can manifest itself in any number of employment, recruitment and training practices and invariably has a detrimental effect on the employee or job-seeker.
Increasingly, employers will be faced with the challenges of managing an ageing workforce. With rising life-expectancy and a low birth-rate, the UK is experiencing a long-term demographic trend towards an older working population, and this has not been offset by immigration.The current figure of 20m people over age 50 is expected to rise to 27m by 2030.
In addition, people are choosing to work longer. A combination of better health and diminishing pensions is leading many to take later retirement.
Under the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, it is unlawful to discriminate against employees, job seekers and trainees on the grounds of age. As defined here, discriminatory practices fall into the same broad groupings described in our opening article, namely: direct or indirect, victimisation and harassment.
Within these regulations, the following specific provisions are worthy of note:
• The national default retirement age is set at 65. Compulsory retirement below that age is unlawful.
• Employees have the ‘right to request’ to work beyond the age of 65, and that request must be considered fairly.
• The previous upper age limits on redundancy and unfair dismissal no longer apply.
From now on, merely to advertise a post as suitable for a ‘mature person’, an ‘enthusiastic recent graduate’, ‘a school-leaver’ or ‘someone with so many years’ experience’ might be deemed unlawful under the indirect discrimination provisions of the legislation.
Discrimination on the grounds of age, particularly that directed at older people, begins at the recruitment stage and often takes place on the back of assumptions that are ill-founded. For example, that they are off sick more often. In fact, research has shown the reverse to be true. That they are ‘over-qualified’ or ‘too experienced’. Or that their energies and ambitions are diminished by the countdown to retirement. Yet all the evidence here points to a similar make-up to other age-groups in the working population.
For those already in work, assumptions that they cannot or do not need to learn new skills; that their performance targets should be set at modest levels; or that they do not need the same support and encouragement as younger workers, because they have reached a plateau of aspiration, are again not borne out by research. For example, Age Concern has reported findings that older people are equally able to adapt to new technologies and skillsets as their younger counterparts.
Employers wishing to take an inclusive stance on equality of opportunity for workers of all ages will need clear and comprehensive policies for the management of a changing demographic.They will, without resorting to positive discrimination, be looking to introduce a bundle of personal development practices (training, planning and monitoring, etc) taylor-made for all workers. And they will be looking for ways to harness the accumulated special expertise of their older workers, since this represents an extremely valuable company asset.
(Acas, for example, recommend a formalised one-to-one mentoring approach, where younger workers are assigned to their elder colleagues to benefit from their years of experience).
For employers, the path to fulfilling legal obligations and implementing sound equality policies and procedures is highlighted in our opening article; in this instance it would begin with an age audit. Help with this is available from a number of organisations.