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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 June, 2004, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
At work, age does matter
By Ben Richardson,
BBC News Online business reporter

Elderly lady
Some people see a problem, others see a wealth of experience

Being a racist or sexist at work will more than likely cost you your job.

Offer someone early retirement to cut costs or decide they are too young for an important position, however, and you probably won't hear a peep.

Ageism, it seems, is deeply ingrained in our national psyche and while some companies are trying to tackle the problem, others are accused of ignoring it.

One recruitment consultant who wanted to remain anonymous called the subject "taboo".

Clients, he said, very rarely mentioned the topic directly but alluded to it by emphasising their company's youthful outlook and its vibrant culture.

Problem employees

Dianah Worman, an advisor on diversity for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), is scathing in her assessment.

"Image is everything," she told BBC News Online. "We tend to think about people and what they can do on the basis of age."

Picture from the CIPD website
A balanced workforce, CIPD style

"Ageism is rife and it affects all of us in our workplace and social life."

The old, she said, are seen as doddery and out of touch, while the young are seen as immature and unreliable.

The employers' mantra is that either they will fall asleep on the job, or get drunk and turn up late .

The figures back her up, with two out of every five workers surveyed by the CIPD saying they felt they had been discriminated against on the basis of age. For the under-25s, the figure climbs to almost three out of five.

Jobs for life?

But how easy is it to identify the culprits?

Patrick Grattan, chief executive of The Third Age Employment Network, identifies the media, fast-moving information technology, financial services and manufacturing as industries that have yet to fully embrace an equal-age policy.

But pointing a finger of blame is not that simple, he said.

"Europe's population will age faster than almost anywhere in the world."
CIPD Age and Retirement Survey

While it is true that merchant bankers and City traders are often seen as over the hill at 35, retail banks are often very pro-active in ensuring that those over the retirement age can still work.

Also it may not always be down to the company, with many older workers, especially those who have been unemployed for a while, failing to sell themselves properly.

Tough market

Mike Saunders is the 66 year-old owner of Wrinklies Direct, an employment agency. With about 2,000 people on his books, Mr Saunders is in close contact with companies looking to hire.

Workers on a re-employ programme
Retraining employees can help keep them working longer

"Some jobs are lost because the person is younger and just as capable," he explained to BBC News Online. "Often though it is because the older person has not got across the right attitude at the interview."

"They have failed to recognise that the rules of the game have changed."

As well as offering advice on interview techniques and how to write a CV, Mr Saunders reckons it is about time that older workers punched their weight.

"They have to sell experience," he urged. "They have to stand up against the young and be counted."

Dream on

Economic and population changes may well give them a helping hand.

According to the CIPD's Age and Retirement Survey "a combination of declining fertility and increasing life expectancy means Europe's population will age faster than almost anywhere in the world".

Couple sitting on the beach in Australia
Many of us will struggle to switch the office chair for sandy bench

As a result, the UK government wants more of us to work further into later life and take the strain off the already overstretched pension system.

Age Concern estimates that the number of people over the pensionable age in Britain is set to increase from 11.3 million in 2006 to almost 12 million five years later.

The charity estimates that currently less than 10% of men and women over the age of 60 are in full time employment, wasting valuable experience and talent.

To make sure they aren't overlooked, the government plans to introduce legislation in 2006 that will make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their age.

While that is set to empower older people it will probably mean that, for the rest of us, dreams of early retirement will remain just that.

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