Informal note of the Seminar on Age Discrimination
held on Wednesday 31st January 2001
Mr Derek Foster
Mr Richard Allan
Ms Kay Carberry, Trades Union Congress
Professor Stephen Fothergill, Centre for Regional Economic and
Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University
Ms Dianah Worman, Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development
Mr Richard Worsley, The Third Age Programme, The Carnegie Trust
The Third Age Employment Network
1. The Chairman welcomed the participants.
2. Mr Richard Worsley said that age discrimination
was distinct from other forms of discrimination in two important
respects: (i) it applied to everyone and (ii) it was not regulated
by any form of legislation. It was a particularly damaging form
of discrimination as it wasted the talents of a growing proportion
of the population. Between 1991 and 2001 the number of UK citizens
in the 50-64 year old age bracket had increased by 1.5 million;
by the end of 2002, one in three of those in work would be over
the age of forty. Age discrimination was also damaging to the
economy. It was estimated that excluding older people from the
workforce resulted in a loss to the Treasury of some £5.5
billion through lost taxes and increased benefit payments.
3. The most familiar form of age discrimination in
the workplace was in recruitment but it also occurred in promotion
and in training and redundancy arrangements. During the last ten
years so called early retirement schemes had a particular effect.
Early retirement had been favoured by employers as an apparently
painless means of cutting the number of employees but in practice
it had been highly damaging. Many of those who had taken such
packages hoping to find alternative employment had found it difficult
or impossible to do so and had experienced a rapid decline in
their economic circumstances. Equally many employers now recognised
that by ridding themselves of older employees they had actually
cut out the memory and experience represented by older workers
and had done lasting damage to the balance and effectiveness of
4. The problem of ageism was widespreadand
there was no indication of improvement. Although statistics had
not been gathered systematically, anecdotal evidence revealed
a disturbing picture. The proportion of men over 50 who were working
was 84 per cent in 1979 and 69 per cent in 1998. Two-thirds of
a sample of 1400 IT professionals thought that they would be unable
to get a job after the age of 45. Research undertaken for the
DfEE had shown that 50 per cent of unemployed people over 50 felt
that they had been discriminated against on the grounds of age.
An Institute of Directors survey of 500 of its members revealed
that half had workforces with less than 10 per cent over the age
of 50 and 10 per cent had no workers over the age of 50. Only
one in ten of those made redundant over the age of 45 ever return
to work. Fifty per cent of men over 50 are no longer working.
5. Official statistics did not reveal the extent
of the problem. For instance, for every person between 50 and
65 who is registered as unemployed, there are eight who are described
as economically inactive. It is estimated that these hidden unemployed
number 1 million, three times the 300,000 registered unemployed
in the age group. The substantial increase in economic inactivity
among older people had sometimes been associated with incapacity1.5
million people over the age of 50 receive some form on incapacity
benefit. The number dependant on long-term sickness or disability
benefit had increased by an astonishing 300 per cent in the last
seven yearsat a time when the nation's health overall was
6. Age discrimination was a result of a combination
of prejudices and assumptionsill-found and deeply ingrainedabout
the capacity of older people. Commonly held beliefs were that
older people were harder to train, more prone to short-term absence,
cost more to employ and that they could not master information
technology. Research had refuted each of these. Another reason
for the extent of the problem, and the failure of employers to
tackle it, was the absence of legislation prohibiting age discrimination.
Although there was still a long way to go in overcoming discrimination
on the grounds of race, gender and disability, the progress that
had been made in those areas owed a great deal to the existence
of law as a deterrent and a clear signal from Parliament. It was
suggested that employers may have drawn their own conclusions
from the absence of legislation on ageism.
7. Over the years, Governments of both major parties
have advocated a voluntary approach to tackling ageism. In opposition
the Labour Party made an unequivocal pledge to introduce legislation
but on gaining office initially preferred to continue the voluntary
approach. A code of practice on age diversity in employment had
been published and the possibility of legislation was made dependent
on its level of success. The impact of the Code of Practice had
been monitored and, by the Government's own measures, appeared
to have had little impact.
8. In October 2000 the Government had accepted the
EU's Equal Treatment Directive. As part of that agreement, the
Government had undertaken to introduce legislation against discrimination
in employment on the grounds of age within six years (and on the
grounds of religion and sexuality within four years). This was
a welcome step, not because legislation was seen as the only remedy,
but because it was an essential part of a package of measures
required to eradicate the problem. The timetable would allow employers
to take necessary steps in policy and practice before the law
9. There were strong arguments in favour of a single
statute which would make it unlawful to discriminate unfairly
on age grounds rather than having a series of single statutes.
The latter option could serve to justify employers' complaints
that they were faced with a mass of confusing legislation. A single
statute would reflect the best diversity practice of employers
in working to treat all employees on their merits. It would reflect
a positive approach rather than a set of negative prohibitions.
It would also represent an opportunity to integrate into a single
equality commission the three existing statutory commissions,
together with a remit covering the three new statutory areas.
This approach had been taken successfully in New Zealand and Northern
Ireland. The Government would also need to consider whether a
single equality commission should have a remit designed only to
cover discrimination in employment or more broadly to encompass
goods and services. It would also have to consider whether legislation
should bar mandatory retirement ages. There was a need for permanent
research arrangements to enable rigorous assessments of the prevalence
and perniciousness of ageism. It would be particularly important
for the Government to be able to monitor the degree of improvement
resulting from its policies.
10. Ms Dianah Worman, Chartered Institute
of Personnel and Development, explained that the CIPD had been
working in the area of age discrimination in employment for many
years. One of the lessons it had learnt was that it took a long
time to change people's perceptions. The CIPD believed that age
diversity in employment was an important business issue as it
was important that employers exploited all areas of talent. Age
diversity was a part of the wider diversity agenda which recognised
that it was important to value individuals and their differences.
The current business climate, with a tight labour market, has
resulted in what was termed a "war for talent" but it
was still difficult to encourage employers to cast aside their
stereotypical treatment of employees. The CIPD believed that it
was important to teach employers to take objective decisions.
11. Knowledge management was increasing recognised
as a key business skill. Knowledge, creativity and ideas were
business assets, yet by shunning older workers, employers were
depriving themselves of the pool of talent older people represented.
Businesses also needed to consider the marketplace and business
opportunities, both of which could be significantly affected by
older people's needs and spending power.
12. Age discrimination could be tackled in a number
of ways. Education and awareness raising were very important;
people needed to understand why discrimination took place, to
recognise it when it did, and to know how to combat it. The Voluntary
Code of Practice which the Government had introduced was another
useful lever, although the results of the early evaluations suggested
that its impact had been limited to date. Legislation would be
an important signal but it was important to remember that it could
not be a complete solution. The Sex Discrimination Act had been
helpful but it had not eradicated discrimination on the grounds
of gender. Other approaches could be useful and effective. Campaigns
could be successful: the campaign against smoking in the workplace
had achieved much success without the support of legislation.
13. The real challenge was to make the business case
in favour of age diversity in the workplace. Once employers had
been persuaded of the merits of the case, they would need assistance
in implementing the right policies. Case studies and spreading
best practice would be important.
14. Reflecting on experience to date was useful as
it ensured that lessons were not missed. The CIPD for instance
had been conducting research on the effectiveness of anti-discrimination
legislation and trying to identify ways in which it could be improved.
The Foresight process had also been helpful in making connections
and drawing together different aspects of social policy and research.
15. Communication was an important aspect of the
drive towards age diversity. Legislation would have no impact
if employers didn't know of its existence. Thus it was important
that the Government maintained the pressure on employers and that
other influential organisations were engaged in the dissemination
16. Ms Kay Carberry, Trades' Union Congress,
said that the TUC was keen to see fair treatment of all people
at work. Employment decisions should be related to a person's
ability to do the job and not dependent on irrelevant factors
such as race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or age. The
TUC was also concerned about social issues, such as the mismatch
between skills shortages and the high numbers of older people
out of the labour market. The impact of the ageing population,
and its knock-on effects on the tax and benefits systems had been
17. Employment decisions based on age and not on
a person's aptitude for the position constituted age discrimination.
It could adversely affect younger people as well as the older
population. Often it was based on prejudice and groundless perceptions.
Young people were stereotyped as unreliable, transitory and immature.
Older workers tended to be seen as reliable but inflexible; slow
to learn and not worth investing in as they might retire or experience
health problems before any return on the investment was achieved.
Moreover, for some employers, they did not have the right image
and were seen as unattractive.
18. The TUC had not performed a scientific analysis
of the ways in which age discrimination operated across industry
although it had conducted a small survey in 1994 but there was
plenty of other research available. All of it indicated that discrimination
operated both formally (through age prescriptions in recruitment
and retirement, minimum skills requirements, perceived health
and safety requirements, and the need to generate returns on the
costs of training provision) and informally.
19. The TUC had received a steady stream of reports
from unions regarding problems encountered by members as well
as correspondence from individuals. In the early 1990s there had
been particular problems for FE lecturers who had been invited
to take early retirement on their fiftieth birthday but more common
instances of discrimination were concerns about compulsory retirement
ages (particularly in the civil service); employees wishing to
remain in employment beyond the normal retirement age; and discouragement
from applying for promotion. Young workers faced discrimination
in relation to pay scales that were aligned to age. Short-term
appointments and casual working could also close off opportunities
for older workers.
20. The biggest single compliant that was made was
from those in their 40s and 50s who were unable to get back into
the labour market after redundancy or enforced early retirement
(there was some evidence to suggest that women hit this barrier
at an earlier age to men).
21. Discrimination was not only unfair but also short
sighted. Employers were not recruiting from the widest possible
range of talent. Too many early retirements led to a loss of skills,
knowledge and corporate memory. The voluntary code of practice
set out the business benefits of employing a mixed-age workforce
22. The TUC was a strong supporter of New Deal for
the over 50s as it was an important part of a package of measures
required to combat age discrimination in employment. It also welcomed
the voluntary code of practice, and noted that the supporting
material was useful in helping interested employers in developing
age diversity employment policies. Legislation was also required:
it would make a strong statement about society's expectation and
obligations. It would however be important to get the legislation
absolutely right particular in the details. It would have to address
the issues of mandatory retirement; contractual retirement ages
and links with employment protection; occupational pension rules;
and inland revenue rules. It would also be important to define
those areas where age discrimination was justified.
23. Professor Stephen Fothergill explained
that his research concentrated on the marginalisation of older
workers. The problem of labour market detachment was more than
one of discrimination. For older workers it was as much about
the disappearance of job opportunities. For older men in particular,
detachment from the labour market had been increasing.
Table 1: Economically inactive men
|ECONOMICALLY INACTIVE MEN, BY AGE
24. There was also a regional dimension to the problem.
In the South East, 86 per cent of men in the age bracket 16 to
64 were in employment. The equivalent figure in London was 77
per cent, in the North East 73 per cent and the Wales 74 per cent.
25. There had been a large number of surveys of unemployed
and economically inactive men so there was reason to have confidence
in the figures. Very few referred to themselves as retired but
many said that they suffered from long-term sickness. Those who
said they were retired tended to be older: far more 64 year olds
described themselves as retired than did 50 year olds. About half
of those in their early 60s said that they were "early retired".
26. There had been a huge increase in the number
describing themselves as long-term sick. There were half a million
in 1981 and just less than two million currently. In fact the
increase in men had levelled off, but it the number of women continued
to grow. The number of those out of the workforce claiming sickness
benefit of one form or another was twice that of those claiming
27. Half of those claiming a sickness benefit were
over the age of 55. In some regions, particularly industrial areas,
as many as 20 per cent of men of working age were on sickness
benefit. In contrast, the figure was very low in the home counties.
28. Of those men between the ages of 50 and 64 who
were out of the workforce, 34 per cent said it was because they
had been subject to compulsory redundancy, 23 per cent cited ill-health
or injury and 30 per cent said that they had taken voluntary redundancy.
About a third of all men in this age bracket outside the workforce
said they wished to work again. A further third had tried to find
work unsuccessfully, become disillusioned and were no longer looking.
Only 5 per cent felt that they had a realistic chance of finding
employment. Of those in their early 50s, about half wanted to
work full-time again. This figure fell to around 15 per cent in
respect of those in their early 60s. Of those older men outside
the workforce, some 88 per cent were not looking for work. Sixteen
per cent of these said that this was because there was no chance
of finding employment and a further 54 per cent blamed ill-health
29. The volume of those claiming ill-health or injury
varied greatly across different parts of the country. The figure
was highest in those areas with an industrial tradition. There
was also a huge occupational divide. Of those with a professional
background, 88 per cent had an occupational pension. At the lower
end of the jobs market, detached males were far more likely to
be dependent on the State for support.
30. There were principally two groups of detached
older men. The slightly smaller group could be typified by middle-class
men with access to a pension who left work through choice. The
majority of these were not actively seeking further employment.
The larger group was characterised by manual workers who had been
subject to compulsory redundancy and rarely had their own pension.
Many of these would still like to work.
31. It was clear therefore that the detachment of
older male workers was not caused by discrimination alone. The
lack of job opportunities was also an important (probably more
32. Mr Richard Allan asked whether sickness
could be the result of unemployment rather than the other way
round. Professor Fothergill said that unemployment could
certainly affect health and compound illness but it was not possible
to assume that unemployment always caused ill-health. It was important
to remember that long-term sickness was not necessarily a bar
to employment, but that it often put sufferers at the back of
the queue for jobs. Ms Worman added that unemployment was
often a demotivating experience and that it was important to help
those wanting to work to see a way in which they could rejoin
33. Mr Foster pointed out that GDP was low
in many industrial areas as so many were not in employment and
there were not job opportunities in the industries in which the
unemployed were used to working. Stereotypes applied at an individual
level too: former miners may not be attracted part-time working
for sales jobs for instance. Mr Worsley agreed that the
cause of much economic inactivity in older was the loss of traditional
job opportunities. The number claiming incapacity benefit had
risen dramatically, but the claimants were not acting fraudulently.
Disillusionment could cause a decline in health. It was however
difficult to say how much economic inactivity was the result of
discrimination and how much the result of a lack of opportunity.
34. Mr Foster pointed out that at one stage
those on unemployment benefit had been actively encouraged to
move onto incapacity benefit in an attempt to reduce unemployment
figures. There was little incentive for them to seek to return
to the unemployment register as they received higher payments
from incapacity benefit and suffered less stigmatism. Professor
Fothergill said that the statistics, which showed wide geographical
variation, indicated that the local labour market was also an
influential factor. Ms Worman added that aspirations may
also play a part: whereas professionals may take a job where the
attached salary was lower than that to which they were accustomed,
because they could afford to or because the work was interesting,
manual workers were less likely to do so.
35. Ms Worman raised the issue of flexible
retirement ages. There was much evidence that many would like
to work beyond the normal retirement age, albeit in many instances
for fewer hours. Mr Worsley explained that phased retirement
would enable those who wished to, to work fewer hours from, say,
the age of 55, and that access to their pension, or at least part
of it, might make this possible. This was permitted, and worked
well, in France and Germany but was effectively prohibited in
the UK by over-bureaucratic Inland Revenue rules. Mr Allan
pointed out that there were two aspects to the retirement issue:
the financial package and perception.
36. Ms Worman said that B&Q's restricted
recruitment (restricted in this case to the over 50s) would become
unlawful. B&Q had also abolished a compulsory retirement age,
as had J Sainsbury plc. Ending the 'cliff edge' retirement age
would however have implications for pension companies which were
likely to see their market shrink. The low level of salary for
young starters, which often meant that they were unable to make
pension contributions also reduced the time over which contributions
could be paid.
37. Mr Foster argued that the current tight
labour market conditions should, logically, reduce the effects
of discrimination on the grounds of age. Professor Fothergill
said this was possible and that it was certainly true that, in
a tight labour market, employers sought alternative means of recruitment
and retention. If they then discovered the benefits of age diversity
in their workforce, there could be a long-term effect on age discrimination.
38. Mr Allan asked why there should be market
failure in this area: if there was a genuine business case for
age diversity, why was it that businesses did not recruit older
workers to gain a competitive edge. Mr Worsley pointed
out that B&Q had indeed had some success with their policies,
although it was difficult to say why. The most important reason,
however, was that employers were prejudiced and that it took years
to change their perceptions. In the 1980s and 1990s there had
been many businesses which had sought to gain competitive advantage
by marketing themselves as "young".
39. Ms Worman stated that it was not yet clear
how legislation against age discrimination would work in practice.
A conciliation approach might be a possibility. The CIPD believed
that age should not be a factor in recruitment: It would be difficult
to prove discrimination in all but the most blatant cases. Professor
Fothergill pointed out that legislation could be used as a
lever to affect a culture change. Mr Worsley pointed to
Northern Ireland and New Zealand, both of which had a single equality
commission and where all the arguments against a single commission
had evaporated once the commission had been in operation for a
while. The existing commissions in the UK had accepted that in
the long-term a single commission may be advantageous. Mr Foster
pointed out that this would certainly enable a reduction in bureaucracy
and the regulatory burden placed on companies.
40. Ms Carberry said that the Government were
aware of the difficulties employers faced by seeking information
about their obligations under equality legislation. They had just
set up a one stop shop phone line and web site to try to ease
the burden. All three existing equality commissions already worked
together on a number of issues. Some argued that the commissions
should be merged. The Disability Rights Commission however needed
more time to establish itself before this could be considered.
Ms Worman said that the way forward may be for an umbrella
organisation to promote education and awareness on all issues
of diversity, with the issues of compliance and policing to be
dealt with separately. Mr Worsley pointed out that it was
not yet known whether a Human Rights Commission would be appointed.
Some favoured that option. What should be resisted strongly was
the notion of there being a commission for each issue.
41. Professor Fothergill said that older people
dropping out of the workforce was (i) not synonymous with early
retirement, (ii) was not entirely the result of discrimination
and (iii) that there was a wide variety in geographical incidence
rates. Ms Carberry agreed that discrimination was only
one of a number of factors and that as a consequence, legislation
against discrimination was only part of the answer. It was also
important to remember that younger workers could also face discrimination
on the grounds of age; as could women of childbearing age. Arguably,
B&Q discriminated against younger workers.
42. Ms Worman pointed out that the nature
of age discrimination varied not only geographically but also
across different sectors on industry. In the IT sector, those
over 30 might face age discrimination. Professor Fothergill
said that for the last 20 years in the UK there had been a buyers'
labour market. The closer the country came to full employment,
the more that employers would have to shed their prejudices and
hire people regardless of age, race or gender. Mr Foster
pointed out that for that to happen, the definition of full employment
would have to include those who are economically inactive as well
as those who are registered unemployed.
43. Mr Worsley argued that the labour market
would always be cyclical in nature and that there would always
be variation between different parts of the country so legislation
was needed as a backstop protection. He welcomed the figures on
detached older male workers that Professor Fothergill had compiled
and compared them to the complete dearth of data on the incidence
of discrimination. There was a need to bring to together much
of the valuable, but piecemeal research on discrimination.