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Five ways to make work better for older people

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Too often older people in the workplace are portrayed as a problem. It's time to take age discrimination at work seriously
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It's time to confront discrimination against older people at work. Credit: Getty

Today the Women and Equalities Select Committee published a report on older people and employment.

It’s unlikely to get the attention it deserves in today’s frenetic news cycle, but even had it surfaced on a slow news day it’s unlikely to have made a splash.

Why? Because age discrimination is rarely seen as newsworthy.

Sadly, the invisibility of older people goes right to the heart of the problem outlined in this report.

There is more that we would have liked to see the menopause as a workplace issue is an obvious omission but there’s much to commend this report.

Here are five highlights:

1. It names the problem

It sounds obvious but too often discussions about older people in the workplace frame older workers as the problem – with issues such as failing health, caring responsibilities, or not being up to speed with the latest technology often cited.

The fact that older workers face such discrimination rarely gets a mention, but this report doesn’t shy away from naming it as a problem.

It also calls for better enforcement of the Equality Act 2010, which offers workers protection from age discrimination.

2. It acknowledges dual discrimination

The report also recognises that older workers often face multiple forms of discrimination.

Older women are an obvious example.

The gender pay gap peaks for women in the 50-59 age group – and we know from our own work in this area that older women often face discrimination in relation to recruitment, caring responsibilities, access to training and promotion, and even health.

In fact, unions regularly deal with cases where women who have taken time off sick due to menopause symptoms end up facing disciplinary procedures.

The Equality Act had a provision to allow discrimination cases to be taken on more than one ground (section 14, dual discrimination) but this was never implemented.

The report doesn’t go so far as to say that the provisions should be implemented, but it does call on the government to commission research into the extent of the problem

This is a step in the right direction.

3. Stronger flexible working rights and carers’ leave entitlements

Let’s be clear: we don’t have a right to flexible working in this country; just a right to request – and even that doesn’t extend to everybody.

You not only have to be an employee (and lots of gig economy and agency workers don’t fit into the definition of “employee”) but also need to have been an employee for 26 weeks before you even have the right to ask for flexible working.

The select committee have rightly identified the needs of older workers to access flexible working and have called for more onus to be put on the employer to offer flexibility and to offer this from day one.

It would be good to see this extended to more groups of workers and not just employees, but it’s broadly a welcome recommendation.

The report also calls for 5 days’ paid leave for carers – a policy that the TUC and others such as Carers UK have long called for – as well as a longer period of unpaid leave similar to unpaid parental leave.

4. Action to support lifelong learning and on-the-job training

The TUC has been a pioneer in the field of mid-life career reviews.

We train hundreds of union learning reps to help their colleagues assess their skills needs and access training.

The feedback from learners and reps is overwhelmingly positive, so it’s good to see mid-life career reviews being recommended by the committee.

The committee also recommended that the government develop a national skills strategy, including lifelong learning, as part of its industrial strategy.

Skills and training should of course be central to any industrial strategy, but it’s essential that any national skills strategy takes account of the devastation that has been wreaked on adult learning services over recent years.

There are 1.5m fewer adults aged 19 or over participating in further education than there were 10 years ago.

And while investment in apprenticeships aimed at young people has increased, older workers have seen their opportunities to learn on the job or at college disappear.

5. It calls on government to make employers publish age data

Following the media interest in the gender pay gap reporting revelations, calls to publish other types of data are cropping up all over the place – and this report is no exception.

As with gender pay gap reporting, the principle of forcing employers to be more transparent about their employment and pay practices is good.

Shining a light on the problem won’t magically solve it but it’s a good place to start.