Older people and employment Contents


The country faces acute challenges recruiting and retaining an experienced, skilled workforce in many key public services as well as in the private sector. It is unacceptable that the nation is wasting the talents of more than one million people aged over 50 who are out of work but would be willing to work if the right opportunity arose. People in later life are often playing many different roles in society, but those who wish to work should not face the current barriers of discrimination, bias and outdated employment practices.

Discrimination, that was made unlawful more than 10 years ago, is the root cause of this problem. The Government needs to be clearer that prejudice, unconscious bias and casual ageism in the workplace are all unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. The employer-led nature of the Government’s approach has advantages, but is unlikely to present an adequate challenge to discriminatory practices or attitudes. We want to see recruitment agencies accept greater responsibility, collecting data on where older workers are being excluded and developing a plan of action to remove discrimination from the recruitment process. Transparency is being used with some success to challenge discrimination in other areas, such as the gender pay gap, and we would like to see it extended to older workers through reporting of the age profile of workforces.

Too little is being done to enforce the law. Neither the Government or the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), with its considerable enforcement powers, are intervening in the recruitment sector where so much of the evidence demonstrates unlawful ways of working. The public sector struggles to retain older workers when it should be leading the way, but the EHRC is not investigating whether the public sector equality duty is being met. We want it to do so.

The Government has good strategies in place in the form of Fuller Working Lives and the Industrial Strategy, but these are not well coordinated with each other and lack any plan to ensure that existing legislation is being implemented and enforced. We want to see the Government work with the EHRC to agree specific enforcement actions.

The Government has not paid sufficient attention to the need for a national assessment of the skills the country will need in the future, and the need to challenge any characterisation of those skills as the preserve of younger people. The changing realities of the job market mean that everyone will need to engage in life-long learning and may well change career paths more than once in our lifetimes. This requires good quality, tailored careers advice, not a one-size-fits-all approach designed on the assumption that only young people start new careers.

The business case for an age-diverse workforce is clear. Despite this, employers continue to organise workplaces around an outdated, inflexible model that this inquiry, and our past inquiries into fathers in the workplace and the gender pay gap, show no longer works. As those who provide much of the informal care in our society, and who live with the effects of past and present gender pay gaps, women tend to be most affected by this lack of flexibility. More needs to be done to make connections between government strategies and local employer support, and between the business case and business practice.

There are practical changes that all employers should be making. The importance and benefits of flexible working have been brought to our attention on a number of occasions, but too many employers are not making this work in practice. It is time for a mandatory approach. We recommend that flexible working be the default from the time jobs are advertised onwards. Many older workers often take on a range of caring responsibilities. The Government should therefore introduce a statutory entitlement to five days’ paid carer’s leave, and a longer period of unpaid leave, to help stop those caring for a loved one falling out of the labour market unnecessarily.

We know that creating the conditions for an age-diverse workplace can be a challenge for employers, especially small and medium enterprises that do not have dedicated human resources departments and easy access to expert advice. The Government’s employer-led approach can help with this, and we recommend that the Government work with the Business Champion for Older Workers to develop an employer-led mentoring service for businesses who want to adapt but struggle to do so in their particular context.

The public sector should also take the lead in adapting to the new realities of an ageing workforce. Government departments must ensure that policies such as flexible working by default and mid-life career reviews become standard in the terms and conditions of employment in the sectors for which they are responsible. Given the recruitment crisis in some parts of the public sector, the EHRC must undertake urgent investigations into ways of working which are resulting in lack of retention of older workers, and ensure that this is not the result of discriminatory practices.

We cannot wait any longer for the EHRC to demonstrates its strategic ambition to be a muscular regulator of the Equality Act and the organisation needs to respond to this report outlining the actions it will now be taking.

Published: 17 July 2018