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Age discrimination – the last taboo

Anna Moore / 30 May 2019

We’re living longer and retiring later. We’re clever, inquisitive and have a great work ethic. But many years after laws were passed to prevent ageism in the workplace, older people often struggle to find jobs

Older woman worker left behind while younger colleagues sprint ahead
Ageism can be hard to prove – if you suspect it's happening, log all incidents then raise it with HR

Angela Atkinson was just 53 when she was squeezed into early retirement. She worked in IT and was told she had to reapply for her job as the company was restructuring. ‘I didn’t get it because they wanted someone who could “hit the ground running”,’ says Angela, now 62. ‘I have no idea what they meant, but my replacement was a much younger man who, according to my former colleagues, didn’t “hit the ground running” any more than I would have. Did they think an older person was less able to learn new ways?’

She knows it’s hard to prove ageism. ‘But it felt like my face didn’t fit. My line manager could have been my daughter – in fact she was at the same school as my daughter, a few years below her. When the letter came with “compulsory early retirement” in black and white, it felt like I’d been hit in the stomach. At my age, what was I going to do?’

Angela couldn’t afford to retire – nor did she want to. Most of today’s older workers have no wish to pick up their pension, pop on their slippers and fade from the working world. The default retirement age no longer exists and the state retirement age is creeping up (by 2020 it will be 66, and about half the workforce plans to work beyond that age).

Older population, older workers

Our population is ageing, so our workforce is too. Nearly a third of UK workers are over 50 and there are more over-60s in employment than ever before. We’ve had anti-age discrimination laws since 2006. But attitudes are dragging far behind, says Anna Dixon, chief executive of the Centre for Ageing Better, who says ageism is the ‘last taboo’. ‘We need to recognise it and challenge it, just as we do when we see discrimination in terms of race, gender or anything else,’ she says.

It starts at recruitment. Almost a third of 50- to 64-year-olds are not in work, and 38% of unemployed over-50s have been out of work for more than a year.

In an experiment by Anglia Ruskin University, two carefully balanced CVs were sent out for job applications, one from a 28-year-old and another from a 50-year-old. The older applicant was four times less likely to get an interview. In a recent survey by solicitors Slater Gordon, 67% of recruiters admitted deliberately selecting applicants under 35 – and 32% had used methods to block over-50s from seeing their posts. They might also post ads for ‘office ninjas’ or ask for graduates who are ‘spirited’ or ‘energetic’, which all warn off older workers.

Job hunting tips for the over 50s

‘When you’re in work, the problem can continue,’ says Dixon, ‘with older people sidelined, passed over for training or promotion and often pushed towards early retirement.’ In a poll of Saga members, 22% of 50- to 69-year-olds felt they had been discriminated against at work.

So why is it happening, when older people bring knowledge, experience and a proven track record? Dixon blames our unhealthy attitude towards ageing in general. ‘Stereotypes tell us ageing means decline and decrepitude,’ she says.

Tired stereotypes

Dr Ricardo Twumasi, lecturer in organisational psychology at Manchester University, spent a year speaking to managers about age. ‘The same stereotypes kept appearing,’ he says. One myth was that older people would take more sick leave, but studies show absentee rates are similar across all age groups. Another was that older people would have fewer years to give a job. Again, not true. A younger person might be more inclined to look around for the next opportunity, while older workers are often more settled, seeking stability not change.

‘Something else I kept hearing was that older people can’t learn new things,’ says Twumasi. ‘That stems from the fact that children have very high neuro-plasticity. People think, “Young people learn really fast, so old people must learn really slowly”. Actually, from 18 onwards, the number of brain cells stays pretty constant in healthy adults.’

Learning new skills in later life

Legally speaking, ageism can be hard to prove, says Martha McKinley, employment specialist with Stephensons solicitors. ‘If you suspect it is happening, keep a careful log of all incidents then raise it with HR in writing.’ The next step is taking your concern to Acas, the official arbitration service that has recently announced new guidelines on age discrimination.

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Not giving up without a fight

Some are taking the fight further. Former pilot Wayne Bayley, 66, is mounting a legal challenge against the Civil Aviation Authority’s rule that airline pilots must retire at 65. In other countries, such as Australia and Canada, there’s no upper limit. Bayley, who has almost 26,000 hours of flying time experience, believes it makes no sense.

‘I’ve enjoyed flying enormously and there’s no reason I shouldn’t continue,’ he says. ‘I think older people suffer an institutional problem with ageism and this idea that we should just shove off doesn’t take into account how fit we are or how competent we are. Tests show I’ve achieved a higher standard of safety than average – which means there are younger pilots now promoted as captains who are possibly less safe and less competent. That’s not rational.’

Retraining as a teacher after 50

For many of us though, a legal battle is too expensive and stressful. Angela was advised by a solicitor that she did have a case, but chose not to fight it. Instead, she enrolled at university and graduated with a first-class degree in English Language and Literature. She then launched a successful copywriting business, while also blogging about her home town at A publisher spotted it and asked her to write a book, Secret Swindon. Four print runs later, she is working on a new book, Swindon in 50 Buildings.

‘I can’t tell you how much better my life is now,’ she says. ‘I love what I do, I’ve got food in the fridge, wine on the table, no sinking Sunday-night blues. Employers are wrong to think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I’m living proof that you can!’

‘The worst thing has been losing confidence’

Andrew Ormiston, 60, from Peterborough, was made redundant from the Cambridge News in August 2017. He is married with two adult children.

‘I’ve worked in the newspaper industry on design and subbing teams for 42 years and won six national design awards. I loved it and lived for it. When they closed our department, I knew finding a new post would be hard, but naively thought my experience would count for something.

'Since then, I’ve applied for more than 120 jobs, initially in publishing, then in anything – driving, a meter reader, council jobs.

‘Usually, I don’t even get an acknowledgement. I’ll spend two-and-a-half hours on each application and so far I’ve had only seven interviews. I’ve removed anything from my CV that indicates age. One publishing house called within five minutes of receiving my CV. I was invited in, but since meeting me I’ve heard nothing. Another time, the interviewer had tattoos and a hipster beard and his words weren’t, “Hello, pleased to meet you” but “I can only give you an hour”. It felt like he was dying to get me out of the door.

‘My full pension doesn’t kick in until I’m 68, so I could give a company eight years’ service. I want to be active, to contribute, and meet people.

‘The worst thing has been losing confidence. I’m really doubting my capabilities. I found a seasonal job at Tesco at Christmas and was an absolute mess the night before, telling my wife that I didn’t think I could do it. In my mind I was sorting out Brexit while climbing Everest. In reality, I was a personal shopper, pushing a trolley around! But I’m still looking for work. I’m not ready to give up.’

Over 50 and looking for work?

If you’re over 50 and job-seeking, there are some agencies who specialise in finding work for older people. Try these:

Prime Candidate

No Desire To Retire 

Fortyplus People

Forties People

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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