Fiddling whilst a tsunami of age discrimination hits older job seekers

Chris BallLast week TAEN published the latest edition of its 50+ Job Seekers Survey. In some ways the results are predictable – surveys so often tell us things that we already know by instinct – but there are surprising insights too.


ONS figures show more older people in work and there is a general feeling that older people are doing reasonably well in the labour market.


The sad fact is however, that deeply embedded structural disadvantages and ingrained ageist attitudes bar hundreds of thousands of older people from returning to work. It is clear that older job seekers struggle harder than most.


Overwhelmingly they want to work because of financial need, a desire to feel valued and the social interaction work brings. Many are ‘worried’ or ‘desperate’ about not working.


They identify adverse attitudes by recruiters, mismatches of their own skills or qualifications with employers’ needs and the national focus on youth unemployment as being among the reasons for their problems.


These barriers to older job seekers continue more than six years after age discrimination was outlawed by the 2006 Age Regulations and two years after the end of the Default Retirement Age, allowing people to be forcibly retired at 65.


Today, despite these reforming legal changes, the challenge of ending age discrimination is as relevant as ever. Only one in ten over 50s looking for work think age discrimination law had helped them.


47 per cent of our older job seekers believed that the law had not had any benefit at all. One respondent, a former managing director seeking work, commented, “Age discrimination is rife in my view. Employers can work out your age with ease.”


Some respondents even volunteered the view that repeal of the DRA had made it harder to get work!


These findings cast an interesting perspective on seminar I attended in Rome to talk to Italian HR mangers about the global phenomenon of population ageing and its implications for employers.


Italian businesses are seriously worried, as are their Governments – when  they manage to get them in place. (The wrangling over coalition alliances following the recent inclusive elections continues). The proportion of the Italian population over 65 has doubled since 1950 and will continue to grow, reaching 33 per cent of the total population by 2050. The average number of children born to Italian women is 1.41 – well short of replacement levels. So leaving aside massive immigration, the Italian labour force is shrinking.


Shrinking and ageing at the same time. Logic says that working up to existing pension ages would be a start. As long ago as 2001 the Stockholm meeting of the European Council of Ministers set a target of 50% for employment rates of people in the 55-64 age range across Europe. In Italy only 36.6 % of the older workforce is in employment.


Over the past decades across Europe, millions of older workers have been eased out of their jobs as one round of industrial restructuring follows another. The early quitting culture has stuck and become an expectation. Now like so many mucky pigeons coming home to roost, the problem appears as an unwelcome threat to economies that simply won’t have the people to do the jobs their businesses need in future.


Hence, on one hand, we have in countries with the most acute demographic threats, emerging concern to find ways of making it possible for people to work longer. At the same time, bizarrely, we have massive age discrimination at the point of hiring.


I couldn’t resist reflecting with my Italian audience on the homily of Nero fiddling whilst the fires raged outside!


Here in the UK, how do we respond to our respondents who claimed their problems could be explained by employers being charier about hiring people who want to work longer, now the DRA has been removed?


Perhaps they are right.


We have a labour market that is ambivalent in its attitudes to older people. Employers will allow them to work longer in the same jobs if they wish but they bottle out of offering them new jobs, believing they may want to work for ever.


People are working longer in part because they can choose to remain in work longer but the lot of the older person who has left a job is problematic.


He or she is likely to fall outside the person specification offered by employers to recruitment agencies, simply on grounds of age. And there is significant evidence that some recruitment agencies connive and fail to challenge ageist attitudes.
It seems clear that the law is being flouted with impunity and there is a presumption that, ‘of course employers will discriminate by age if they wish to so.’ The eradication of age discrimination in employment is a far from complete.


The time has surely come to assess the effectiveness of the law against age discrimination in recruitment. One speaker on Thursday spoke of employers and politicians ignoring a demographic tsunami in Italy, but it is not only the Romans who emulate the feats of Nero.



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