Age discrimination is still seen as okay in the workplace

Every fortnight or so, 58-year-old James Clark hosts a ‘tea and teach’ session at Barclays’ high-street branch in Ealing Broadway, west London. Clark, a community banker with the retail bank, takes customers through the basics of everything from online banking to email.

The free classes are open to all and, while some young people do attend, most are elderly. The same is true of those who turn to Clark for advice on how the branch’s new electronic service counters operate.

“Some of the bigger problems we’re facing is elderly people coming to use the machines and technology,” says Clark, a member of Barclays’ Silver Eaglesprogramme, a network of branch staff trained to help older people familiarise themselves with digital technologies. “People seek out myself because I am older and more approachable for them.”

Older people: the demographic dynamo

It’s one of an emerging crop of examples of UK companies adapting to Britain’s changing demographic. According to a recent study by the charity Age UK, the number of people aged over 65 is expected to nearly double (48%) to 16 million by the end of the next decade [PDF].

That presents a market opportunity. Whether it is saving cinemas or boosting tourism, retailers and service providers are increasingly chasing the so-called grey pound.

But what of older people in the workforce? The same demographic curve that is exciting marketeers requires a rethink by human resources managers too. Since the compulsory retirement age of 65 was scrapped in 2011, the number of over 65s choosing to stay in work has risen to over one million.

Despite a widespread expectation that this figure is set to increase, only a small minority of businesses are taking the issue of an ageing workforce seriously, says Christopher Brooks, policy adviser on employment and skills at Age UK. “It makes sense from a business point of view that companies are using the skills and expertise that all ages bring to their workforce”, he says.

Research backs up the benefits of a more age diverse workforce. Up to the age of 70, older workers are just as productive as their younger counterparts, a government report argues [PDF].

Mixed-aged teams, meanwhile, are shown to increase the relative productivity of older and younger workers alike [PDF]. Yet a recent labour market study by the private sector membership group Business in the Community (BITC) suggests companies are missing out on such benefits by failing to attract and retain older staff.

Failure to implement age-sensitive policies such as flexible working and part-time contracts often forces older people out of the workforce, especially those trying to juggle ill-health and caring responsibilities. And once out, the hurdles to get back into work can be huge. “There’s a minority group of people who can get stuck out of the labour market and find it impossible to ever work again, even though many of them would like to,” says Brooks.

Ageism: the ‘okay’ prejudice

The pervasiveness of out-and-out discrimination should not be underestimated, however. “It’s still seen as okay in our culture to make general assumptions about people based on how old they are,” says Rachael Saunders, head of BITC’s Age at Work programme. So while a company would no longer get away with advertising for a woman or a white person to fill a role, saying “I’d like a bright, young thing to come and work for me” is still seen as alright.

Age discrimination comes in many guises. More often than not, it is the result of lazy stereotyping. So, the middle manager who feels threatened by a candidate with more experience than them or the recruiter who shows an unconscious bias towards candidates his or her own age.

Proving that there has been age discrimination is tough, particularly at the recruitment stage. A handful of cases of overt ageism, such as compulsory retirement or age caps, find their way to court every year. “But we’re only at the beginning of the journey as to where more subtle, cultural discrimination kicks in,” admits Saunders.

A point of particular contention centres on youth unemployment. The latestgovernment statistics put the UK jobless figure for young people aged 16-24 at around 743,000. Should those at the outset of their working lives get priority over those edging towards its end?

No, say advocates for older workers’ rights. The idea derives from the false notion that the total number of jobs is fixed, what academics refer to as the “lump of labour fallacy”. However, by current projections, UK employers will need to fill 13.8 million job vacancies over the next decade, according to theNational Voice for Lifelong Learning. During this period only 7 million young people will leave school and college. In short, there is room for both young workers and old.

A more compelling argument revolves around the idea of older employees as net creators of employment. If just half of the 1.2 million older workers who are unemployed or inactive re-entered the labour market full time, an estimated £25bn could be added to the UK’s annual GDP, government calculations suggest[PDF]. With more buying power in older people’s hands, demand would increase and with it jobs.

“Both young and older workers should be given just as much attention,” says Dirk van Dierendonck, professor of human resource management at Erasmus University. “Ideally, we should work towards a situation where people from different generations work together.”

Back at Barclays, meanwhile, the bank intends to open up its youth apprenticeship to candidates of all ages later this year. The 60-year-old work experience student: there’s a myth-buster right there.