An aging problem?

In recent months there have been reports into discrimination based on sex and race; now it is the turn of age. The Women and Equalities Select Committee has recently published a report on its review into older people and employment, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture:

  • Apparently more than one million people aged over 50 who are out of work would be willing to work if the right opportunity arose.
  • Although it has been unlawful since 2006, age discrimination is considered to be the main cause of the problem.
  • Despite this, the number of age discrimination claims pursued in the Tribunal is surprisingly low (only 6% of Tribunal claims in 2017/18 involved an element of age discrimination), suggesting that there is a mismatch between the protection offered by the law and the reality of discrimination.
  • Too little is being done to enforce the law, with prejudice, unconscious bias and casual ageism said to be commonplace. While such discrimination is overt in some instances, most of the time it is subtle.

It is a simple fact that we have an aging population where more people are living longer. This inevitably means that people are going to have to work longer. Employers can no longer afford or choose not to offer “gold-plated” final salary pension schemes; not only can most individuals not afford to support a retirement that is almost as long as the time spent in work, but the state cannot afford to support them either. Last year the government brought forward its plans to raise the state pension age, from 67 to 68, by seven years to between 2037 and 2039 for those born after 1970.  It will look again at whether rises beyond 68 are needed, and when at the next review in 2023.

There is a further society-wide cost to not enabling older individuals to continue in productive work. It is well documented that unemployment leads to stress and depression and that can only be exacerbated where individuals have the skills, experience and desire to work but cannot because they are perceived as too old.

One point is clear; as a society we need to move away from the entrenched idea that once individuals reach a certain age, whatever that age may be, they are no longer capable of learning new skills, won’t work as hard or simply don’t want to work at all. This ties directly in with an issue often raised in the context of pregnancy and maternity discrimination – careers should no longer be considered a straight line, with employees reaching certain stages at certain times or falling off the track. At different times of life employees will have different wants and needs, and employers will need to be able to accommodate that. At present, employers may risk missing out on a valuable, experienced and willing workforce due to unfair and inaccurate assumptions about older workers.