Age discrimination was made unlawful in 2006, but it continues today as discretely as an ace up a card-sharper’s sleeve. This at least is the gist of a report issued last week by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee.
At one level you could be forgiven for thinking that everything is hunky-dory regarding older workers. Everyone recognises they have a vital part to play. The Government has been promoting them in its Fuller Working Lives strategy. Employers should be bending over backwards to keep skilled older workers, but in reality there is not much sign of this.
Instead there is a ritualistic banging of drums each time the burgeoning numbers of older workers in the labour force are announced. “There are now 10.2 million workers over 50,” Ministers tell us, “and the numbers are growing.”
Not all of this is gilding the lily. More of our 50- to 64-year-olds are in work than ever before, many are happy to work and some are reasonably able to find new jobs. But many looking for work confront unspoken ageism and subtle barriers that can make working difficult.
Research suggests there are over a million unemployed people over 50 who are willing to work if only the right opportunity were to arise, for example to work in a less than “full on” way in later life. But changed personal circumstances, growing skills gaps and negative attitudes to giving an older person a try in a new job, can make getting back to work exceptionally hard.
Rapid changes in state pension ages have forced many women to rethink their retirement plans, with a record 487,000 women now working beyond 65. Some women born in the 1950s are having to wait six years longer for their pensions.
On the other hand, a quarter of all people between 50 and state pension age (65) are “economically inactive,” neither in work nor seeking it. Most have given up the idea of work though many would seize an opportunity if it came up.
We may have made some progress since 2011 when mandatory retirement at 65 was abolished but age discrimination remains rife in the job recruitment process. So, you were turned down for a job you knew you could do? You may have your suspicions but it is hard to prove that age was the hidden factor.
What can be done about it? I spoke to a recruitment specialist about this. “Are employers nowadays age blind in job recruitment?” I asked. “Far from it,” he said. “The age of an applicant is the first thing that many of them look at.”
The Select Committee notes that, “…neither the Government nor the Equality and Human Rights Commission… are intervening in the recruitment sector where so much evidence demonstrates unlawful ways of working.”
One problem is that career pathways are entrenched in the past. Anyone thinking of starting out in a new role at 50-something has a tough challenge ahead. Skills training is the preserve of younger people, and despite talk of “older apprenticeships,” quality retraining in a new trade is not generally available for older people.
Other forms of ageism include contriving redundancy for older people, who may find it very hard to get another job afterwards. The prospect of a lump sum payment can be tempting but it may hit your career below the water line.
One piece in the jigsaw which MPs seem to have forgotten to mention, is consultation with workers themselves on the subject of extended working. Whilst legislation underpins workplace discussions on health and safety issues, there is no obligation to consult with employees on active ageing. Specific solutions for specific jobs however, can help enormously. (In an international research partnership by four universities, my colleagues and I have found scores of adaptations that can make a difference for jobs ranging from NHS paramedics to construction workers.)
In some countries this need to consult on active ageing is being filled effectively by good practices. A “framework agreement on active ageing,” between the European Social Partners covers workers in pretty much all organisations throughout Europe. It describes the scope of consultation over demographic changes, working conditions and the organisation of work which could make it possible for all workers to work healthily until retirement.
One suspects however, that it may be one of the unsung sacrificial lambs of Brexit. No-one will know about it and so we won’t care very much, even though it could still be very helpful.