Ageism back on the employment agenda

In August 1998, the UK Government published proposals for a non-statutory Code of Practice on age discrimination in employment. This was met with dismay by trade union leaders who feared that it would not go far enough in combating what is seen as a major problem in the UK labour market. Evidence from the most recent large-scale survey of managers on this issue shows that there is some sympathy amongst employers for the union position. Accordingly, although the Government may be lagging behind in proposing only a voluntary approach, there is grounds for optimism that the social partners themselves may be keen to develop more substantive and specific measures.

On 13 August 1998, the Department for Education and Employment (DOFEE) published the report of its consultation process on age discrimination, which had been launched in October 1997. This involved a wide-ranging and informal set of meetings and submissions involving interested parties such as the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the Age Concern charity, and theInstitute of Personnel and Development.

Launching the report, the employment minister Andrew Smith said: "By 2006 more than 25% of the workforce will be aged 50 or over. Employers and the wider community cannot afford to discriminate unfairly on the grounds of age. This Government is determined to tackle the problem but cannot do so on its own. We have to work in partnership with business, employees and interested groups, as well as the public ... Nevertheless, the action proposed, including a non-statutory Code of Practice [on age discrimination], to be published in the autumn, will provide a comprehensive and coherent plan to tackle the issue. It is a challenging task, the key to which is changing attitudes towards age and how we judge the ability of all to participate and contribute to the continued growth and development of the economy."

As well as the Code, other measures planned by the government include: removing upper age limits from job vacancies in Job Centres; "New Deal" (UK9707143F) pilot projects for older unemployed people; the introduction of key indicators monitoring the position of older workers; and the opening of the University for Industry (UK9804115F) by 2000.

Whilst condemning age discrimination or "ageism" in the strongest terms, the Labour Government has thus committed itself to continuing with the voluntaristic route of exhorting employers to mend their ways which was pursued by the preceding Conservative administration. By proposing a non-statutory Code of Practice, to come into effect in 1999, the Government disappointed many of its supporters, particularly in the trade unions, who had hoped that it would introduce legislation on the issue. John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, predicted that the Code would be "largely ineffective" and added that the TUC was "disappointed that the Government has not gone all the way in making ageism at work unlawful". The TUC position was made clear earlier in 1998 when Mr Monks stated that "in the case of age discrimination we consider that legislation similar to the race and sex discrimination laws would be helpful in changing attitudes" (UK9802102N). In reply, Andrew Smith suggested that the Code would have a real impact by being referred to as a standard at industrial tribunals, and that the Government had not yet completely ruled out the possibility of legislation.

The issue of age discrimination

As with other equality issues which are addressed by the social partners, such as race and sex discrimination, the concern over age discrimination is related to questions of fairness and efficiency. It is unfair that individuals should face problems in gaining access to employment or to training, or be selected for redundancy solely on the grounds of age. It can also be inefficient for employers to use age as a criterion for decision making, as it is not necessarily related to individual skills, motivation or abilities. There is therefore much room for the social partners to develop common proposals combating the use of age as a factor in employment decision making.

Age discrimination in employment first became an issue of widespread interest in the latter part of the 1980s when employers and governmental policy-makers, already grappling with the problem of labour market shortages, began to be haunted by the spectre of demographic change and shortages of young workers. The recession served only to redirect rather than diminish concern, as employers generally chose to target older workers as part of their "rationalisation" initiatives, often through induced "voluntary" redundancy, but equally at the cost of a sudden loss of accumulated experience and expertise. At the same time, the escalating pace of technological and other job-related change in organisations increasingly meant that older workers, once enjoying the benefits of security and seniority in employment, were now disadvantaged not only at the entry and exit stages of the employment relationship, but also internally in terms of training and development, as employers felt that they would be unable or unwilling to keep up.

These structural factors mean that the issue of age discrimination has become much more visible in recent years, with companies such as Ford committing themselves through negotiations with trade unions not to discriminate on the basis of age. Governmental concern has also increased as unemployment amongst older workers, whilst lower than for younger workers, is generally likely to be of a more long-term nature. Yet few empirical investigations into employer attitudes and practices have been conducted. The most recent large-scale survey of practising managers shows that on the whole age barriers persist, especially in terms of recruitment where objective information on individual abilities and performance is less readily available and where age is used as a convenient device to sieve the applicant pool ("Breaking the barriers: A survey of managers' attitudes to age and employment", J Arrowsmith and AE McGoldrick, Institute of Management, London (1996)). More positively, of the 1,700 managers questioned, most saw age discrimination as a vital issue to be addressed by employers and trade unions, and, perhaps surprisingly, through government legislation.

The extent of age discrimination

According to the survey, over half (55%) of all managers believe that their organisation discriminates on the basis of age when it comes to recruitment and selection. A further 38% report age discrimination in training, 41% in access to promotion, and 54% when it comes to making decisions on redundancy. Larger organisations are the worst offenders, especially for white collar and managerial jobs. Personal experience of ageism, either on the grounds of being considered "too young" or "too old", is widespread amongst managers of different ages. However, 55% admit to themselves having used age in their recruitment and selection decision making, 32% when they have made redundancy or dismissal decisions, 29% over promotion decisions, and 25% in training decision making.

Reasons for age discrimination

There are three main reasons for age discrimination from the survey: stereotypes; existing age profiles; and the nature of the job. The first relates to wider ageism in society and the cultural association of ageing with decline; the second to the nature of internal labour markets (succession planning and developmental career timetables) and the notion that work teams are more effective if they are socially cohesive; and the third to new technology, work intensification, physical demands and the pace of change. Significantly, it appears that employers are responsible for negative self-fulfilling prophecies - if managers believe older workers have less interest in training or are less able to learn ("you can't teach an old dog new tricks") then training provision is directed towards younger workers, older employees become less productive and are left increasingly behind, thereby justifying further discrimination.

What should be done about it?

Managers believe that legislation is the most direct way to break the vicious circle, and that employers and trade unions can make a start by negotiating equal opportunity policies and procedures which include an age equality remit. Nearly seven out of 10 (69%) are in favour of legislation forbidding the use of age limits in recruitment advertising, and a similar number (65%) support comprehensive employment protection legislation as applies on grounds of sex and race discrimination. An even bigger majority (85%) are in favour of their organisation taking steps to develop an age equality policy. These views on the importance and relevance of both statutory and employer initiatives are consistent across all organisational types and respondent age groups.


The Labour Government's decision to continue solely with the voluntary route is likely to disappoint not just its natural supporters in the trade unions, but also a substantial section of managers in both the private and public sectors. However, the proposed Code of Practice could be the kick-start which is needed for the social partners to come together and develop more specific measures to combat age discrimination themselves. This remains to be seen as it is not yet clear what form the new Code will take, but with the Government's approach to industrial relations summed up in the words "partnership", "fairness" and "efficiency", voluntary joint action on employment equality and age discrimination would be particularly appropriate for the new industrial relations agenda. (J Arrowsmith, IRRU)

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