Ageism is last 'respectable' prejudice - but must be overcome

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date: 20 November 2007

embargo: noon Wednesday 21 November 2007

The abuse that Ming Campbell suffered because of his age 'would not have been tolerated on the grounds of gender, race, sexuality or disability' and ageism is the most common form of unfair discrimination at work, TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, will say today (Wednesday) in a call for employers to fully use older workers and the Government to give older workers more choice about how and when they retire.

Giving the Life Academy annual lecture in London Brendan Barber will say that two in five retired men and one in five retired women are leaving work earlier than expected and that a quarter of managers admit to discriminating on the basis of age. This is 'not just a terrible waste of experience and talent - but a story of lives unfulfilled and aspirations denied.'

Four policy approaches are required, he will say:

  • First there should be far more investment in training for older workers, which should be backed up with a right to retraining, with paid time off to learn new skills, supported where appropriate with subsidies for employers.
  • Second there should be a flexible approach to retirement that gives people the choice to work beyond state retirement age. 'Retirement should be less of a cliff-edge', so that 'all workers have the opportunity to ease into retirement by combining part-time work with a part-time pension.'
  • Third we should give everyone at work - young and old - the right to request flexible working, which would be particularly useful for grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren.
  • Fourthly we need to safeguard the health and well-being of the older workforce by allowing older workers to change job and calling on employers to make 'reasonable adjustments to jobs, backed by redeployment opportunities and proper investment in occupational health'.

There is a strong business case for these changes. Brendan Barber will say: 'Older workers are an invaluable source of experience, expertise and crucially - in an ageing society - of market intelligence. Put simply, ageism - like any form of discrimination - is simply bad for business. No organisation will succeed over the longer term unless it nurtures the talents, knowledge and potential of all its workforce. That's why all employers - whether large or small, public or private, manufacturing or services - need to start getting their head round the idea of proactive age management.'

Extracts from speech

Ming Campbell's treatment is sadly symptomatic of the ageism that is deeply engrained within the fabric of our society. The abuse he suffered - the cartoons of him ascending the podium on a stairlift, speaking with the aid of a zimmer frame - simply would not have been tolerated on the grounds of gender, race, sexuality or disability.

And that's the key point. We may have come a long way on the equality and diversity agenda - but age, it seems, is the final frontier. In a society which increasingly puts a premium on youth, on Britain being a 'young country', to use Tony Blair's words - Cool Britannia and all that - it is perhaps inevitable that the older generation have come to feel marginalised.

Add to this a popular discourse littered with offensive terms such as 'old giffers', 'codgers' and 'coffin dodgers', and you could say we are a country that systematically devalues its more mature citizens.

And you don't have to look hard to find the evidence. The National Audit Office has confirmed, for example, that age discrimination remains 'a significant problem'.

And research by Age Concern suggests that nearly 30 per cent of the population believe there is now more prejudice against older people than even five years ago.

Pause for a moment to think what all of this means in terms of our labour market - and perceptions of what older workers can and cannot do.

It's hardly a surprise that polling by MORI has discovered that ageism is the most common form of discrimination at work. Or that a joint study by the CIPD and Chartered Management Institute revealed that almost a quarter of managers admit to discriminating on the basis of age.

Yes, the new age regulations will make a difference, but that won't happen overnight. As the Employers Forum on Age recently reported, 2,000 claims of age discrimination have been brought to tribunal since the new legislation came into force - and some 16 million people have witnessed age-related prejudice in the past year.

Change on the statute book, it seems, is one thing. But change where it really counts - in the workplace and in wider society - quite another.

Ageism, then, remains a massive problem. And the upshot is this.

In Britain today, we have a large group of older people who have left employment involuntarily - many having to cope with low incomes, poverty or social exclusion as a result.

Of the two million workers classified as economically inactive, but who want to work, the majority are over 50.

According to research from the Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit back in 2000, around 40 per cent of retired men and 20 per cent of retired women left work earlier than expected. That is a pretty damning statistic.

Not just a terrible waste of experience and talent - but a story of lives unfulfilled and aspirations denied.

So how do we move forward? What can government and employers do to break down these age barriers? How can we provide greater choice and opportunity for older workers?

Well, as I suggested earlier, this needs to become a top priority for our politicians.

They must recognise that what happens at work can be the driver of change in wider society.

That's why the TUC supports the Government's target to get an extra one million older workers into employment.

But what we need now is action on the ground. Positive policies that cover everything from skills to well-being, backed by proper incentives to encourage employers to do the right thing.

But at the same time, it's clear we must to do more to provide decent employment opportunities for the large number of people in their 50s and 60s who want to work but still cannot get a foothold in our labour market.

Our record on employing this age group continues to compare unfavourably with many advanced industrial nations - not just the likes of Denmark, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, but also Japan and the United States.

So we simply have to raise our game. That, of course, is where the concept of age management comes in. Something the Government should be promoting - and employers should be implementing.

What we need are bold, imaginative policies that cover the full spectrum of issues.

I believe there are four key dimensions to the age management challenge.

First, we've got to invest in the skills of older workers. Talking about employability is all well and good, but what matters is turning rhetoric into reality. Too often resources have been targeted at younger people, and in an age when we must nurture the talents of all, that is profoundly short-sighted. That's why the TUC is calling for a right to retraining for older workers, with paid time off to learn new skills, supported where appropriate by subsidies for employers.

Second, we've got to take a flexible approach to retirement. Not compelling people to work past the state retirement age, but offering the opportunity to work longer for those who want to. And, at the same time, making retirement itself less of a dramatic cut-off point, less of a cliff edge.

Recognising that the dividing lines between employment and retirement have become blurred. That's why the TUC is calling for all older workers - not just managers and professionals - to have the opportunity to ease into retirement by combining part-time work with a part-time pension.

Third, we've got to do more to promote flexible working for all. With a growing number of people in their 50s and 60s responsible for caring for their grandchildren - limiting their participation in the labour market - we've really got to get to grips with how we enable everyone to balance work and family life.

That's why the TUC is calling for a new right for all workers to request flexible working, backed by an extension of affordable childcare.

And fourth, we've got to promote well-being among older workers. Just as work can be good for you, it can also be bad for you - something we've got to take on board. It's been estimated that around 40 per cent of workers over 50 suffer from a health problem in any given year. But working longer need not mean staying in the same job or working at the same intensity.

That's why the TUC is calling on employers to make reasonable adjustments to enable older staff to perform to their full potential, backed by redeployment opportunities and proper investment in occupational health.

And all of this poses not just a challenge to government - but to employers as well.

Because what really matters, of course, is not what happens in Westminster, but what happens in the workplace itself.

Our corporate leaders must not see age management as a bureaucratic burden, unwanted regulation or yet more red tape, but as a tool for making their organisations fairer and more successful.

Indeed the business case for action is clear. Older workers are an invaluable source of experience, expertise and crucially - in an ageing society - of market intelligence.

Lest anyone underestimate the strength of the so-called grey pound! Put simply, ageism - like any form of discrimination - is simply bad for business. No organisation will succeed over the longer term unless it nurtures the talents, knowledge and potential of all its workforce.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

- Brendan Barber's full Life Academy lecture can be found at http://www.tuc.org.uk/extras/lifeacademy.doc

- The lecture takes place at 1 Great George Street, London SW1P 3AA at 6.30pm on Wednesday 21 November 2007. If you would like to attend contact Kathy Victor, Head of Communications & Marketing, Life Academy 01483 301170 or 07976 290211.

Contacts: Liz Chinchen T: 020 7467 1248 M: 07778 158175 E: media@tuc.org.uk

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