By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News
New laws aim to tackle ingrained beliefs about older workers
New age discrimination laws will come into force in October, leaving many working practices past their sell-by date.
Firms will no longer be able to advertise for "young", "dynamic" or even "mature" candidates for fear of falling foul of the regulations.
Employers will also have to watch the language in the workplace - no referring to old-timers - as well as keeping a check on how they award pensions and perks. Also, they will no longer be able to force workers to retire at 65.
"I don't think the magnitude of the change will be understood for a good few months or years," says Michael Farrier of employment lawyers Boyes Turner.
With such a seismic shift on the horizon, a big question mark is hanging over UK companies and how ready they are for the change?
Some companies are not burying their heads in the sand, and courses, events and seminars on how to deal with ageism are becoming big business.
Lessons to learn
Boyes Turner, along with recruitment specialists FSS and Crone Corkill, has been providing a number of away-days for firms hoping to bone up on the changes.
The changes will affect young and old workers alike
At a mock tribunal in London's financial district, human resources personnel and other workers get to witness an ageism claim alongside other discrimination allegations.
During a break in the "case", the visitors discuss what the changes could mean for their working practices.
"Even just calling someone oldie in a birthday card could be enough to bring a claim," says one.
Another observer has been on a round of seminars and discussions, and explains she's been briefed not just to concentrate on older workers.
"At a recent course one speaker warned that the changing demographics in society mean more young people could take action - they're seen as the 'Me Me Me Generation' and so just want to grab what they can," she says.
Even though this type of event is seen as helpful in getting staff ready for the new laws, employment experts believe employers could be in for a shock.
They point to research carried out before the last big legal changes in the workplace - sex and race discrimination laws which came in to force in the mid-1970s.
Before those rules were brought in, most firms believed they would make little difference - but many high-profile and high-stakes cases have since been brought before tribunals.
One study by legal firm Simons & Simons showed 93% of companies believe that new regulations will have little effect, even though age is consistently shown to be a factor in company employment decisions.
Another survey by Legal Week Benchmarker, carried out in July last year, found that 75% of corporate lawyers questioned had not reviewed their firm's employment policy.
Experts believe companies could be "underestimating" the changes they face.
"There's increasing awareness of ageism as a bad thing, the laws put a stake in the ground and say its as bad as racism or sexism," Sam Mercer, director of the Employers' Forum on Age (EFA) says.
A number of employers have been contacting the EFA about the changes - raising "about six issues a day", Ms Mercer says.
Companies will have to closely examine their policies and practices
Among the most common concerns raised is compliance, or how companies can stick to the rules.
"Big or small, companies still need to decide age and recruitment policies, graduate training schemes and policies on long-term benefits," Ms Mercer says.
But policies and practices aren't the only issues that need checking, says Paul Marsh head of HR and recruitment at FSS and Crone Corkill.
"We need to break down prejudices and change mindsets, as age to a lot of people would not feel as taboo as sexism or racism," he says
As a result, companies will have to look at the culture of their workplace - for example in the IT world staffing tends to be more youth oriented.
Firms will have to check whether their adverts and policies are promoting inherent age discrimination and ways to rebalance the situation so they are not at odds with the law.
But Mr Marsh does not believe the new laws will trigger an upsurge in age-positive employment.
"Companies still need to take the best person for the job," he explains. "But we would actively try to widen the pool of recruits.
"It could be, say, how you attract over 50s - for example, where you advertise. If your ads are web-based that lessens the pool as younger people are more likely to use them," he adds.
Some commentators predict the changes could in fact lead to fewer people working past the age of 65 as firms enforce a "blanket ban" on older workers to prevent claims in the future.
Anecdotal evidence from Age Concern suggests that companies are currently clearing out older workers as a pre-emptive measure to avoid such cases
After October, workers will be able to work past the age of 65 if granted leave to do so by their employer. Should they be refused then it must be for "objectively justified" reasons.
Unfortunately, it seems that these reasons are less than clear.
"There's a lot of uncertainty about the changes - usually it's black and white - for example when sexual orientation came in you could understand precisely what was expected," says Mr Farrier.
Firms will have to mind their language in job ads
"Each case will be treated on its merits, if a worker is kept on at 65 then that requires you to have valid evidence for why that didn't go on at 68 and what's changed."
Looking ahead the experts believe there will be more cases claiming age discrimination, but it will take the first awards against companies to give any guidance as to how the changes will take effect.
The experience of companies in the US may give some hints as to how the future will develop as anti-ageism legislation has been in force there since 1967.
Between 1992 and 2002 17,000 age-related discrimination cases were launched and 10,000 of those were successful in getting compensation.
However, most cases were on a class-action basis and dealt with redundancies and job cuts.
Closer to home, the Republic of Ireland brought in the new legislation two years ago and by July last year ageism accounted for 19% of discrimination cases
So even while no-one is sure exactly how the changes will manifest themselves, it seems certain that the effects will start to be seen pretty quickly and companies would be well advised to prepare themselves as soon as possible.