As young as you feel?

In September 2018, a survey by the Centre for Ageing Better (CFAB) found that almost half (46%) of Britons over the age of 50 feel their age  has a detrimental effect on their ability to find work or remain in employment.

The patterns are clear. Many businesses carry out regular re-organisations and encourage those entitled to draw workplace pensions, sometimes as young as 55, to take redundancy and early retirement, thereby effectively removing older workers from economic activity.

This can often lead to a worker taking a career break. But in the event that alternative work is not found, the worker can become de-skilled and lose confidence. They may gain a taste of life in retirement but find it is not particularly to their liking.

Enter the ‘unretireds’ - people who, despite a gap in their employment, have decided to get back to work. When they do so, they can find their role offers lower levels of seniority, responsibility and remuneration. Others choose to return as consultants and effectively fall into the gig economy with all its uncertainties and lack of protection. Whilst this may provide more flexibility, it may not be entirely satisfactory.

Unlike several of the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010, age discrimination is unique. It is a fluid situation which can affect anyone, at any age. There has been a generational change in the employment environment whereby senior management roles are no longer the domain of those close to retirement, and seniority no longer runs with age.

The statistic shows that one in five older workers has hidden or considered hiding their age when applying for jobs. Whether this is effective remains to be seen, although a lengthy CV can often tell its own story.

Direct age discrimination can be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim and much of the case law surrounding this relates to pensions and retirement benefits. The CFAB’s research points to a more subtle form of discrimination which can be overcome by changing perceptions and challenging workplace practices.

Just as pregnancy and maternity leave have become sacrosanct in order to retain the female workforce, so it is that many older people have caring responsibilities and need a flexible working environment. Employers are increasingly being urged to “be flexible about flexible working”.

Secondly, older people may have ongoing health conditions. Younger people may be affected by health conditions as well but the perception is that this is the domain of the older worker. Health issues require management but do not prevent people from making a useful economic contribution. The CFAB advises that we ensure everyone has the health support that they need.

The CFAB also recommends a positive non-discriminatory approach to recruitment and training (hire age positively). Many older people are able to defeat the perception that they are slower learners, poor at coping with technology and do not want to undergo training or career development. The recommendation is therefore to encourage career development at all ages.

Finally CFAB recommends employers develop an age positive culture in the workplace so that all employees enjoy interaction with staff of all ages.

Neither is it an easy ride for school leavers. Lack of workplace knowledge, work ethic and interpersonal skills can all contrive to make it difficult for school leavers to get a foot on the employment ladder. Arguably unwisely, younger people have agreed to be “interns” or take “extended work experience”. Whilst commendable and helpful in their understanding of their chosen career path, they are working for nothing. They therefore slide under the radar when it comes to a minimum wage thus devaluing themselves and the overall workforce.

Far more young people than ever before are arriving in the workforce with degrees. A degree is no longer the province of the minority so graduate jobs are less well paid than ever despite the fact that they come with a huge debt burden at the start of their career. Graduates are very often employed in what were originally non-graduate roles and are therefore “under employed” and not using the skills and knowledge they have acquired during their tertiary education.

It is clear that workers of all ages are exposed to the risk of setbacks which are, to a large extent, out of their control. The overriding impact of market forces cannot be ignored and where there is a recession, it is a case of the survival of the fittest.

A high quality employer will drive change in order to prevent assumptions and misconceptions about older and younger employees and seek to recruit positively in order to maximise on the wealth of knowledge and experience offered by older employees whilst investing in a new generation of workers for the 21st century.

For more information about anything discussed in this article, please contact Caroline Mitchell or another member of Thrings’ Employment and Immigration team.

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