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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 September 2006, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
How UK 'turned its back' on older workers
Analysis
By Julian Knight
Personal finance reporter, BBC News

A graph
Employment rates for the over 50s fell for two decades

Lose your job after the age of 50 - or even 40 in some industries - and you may have a fight on your hands to find a new one.

Stories are legion of older workers leaving employment never to return.

In fact, according to official figures, some 2.8 million people over the age of 45 are without paid work in the UK.

All this despite longer lives, an ageing population, a tight labour market and, from 1 October, the introduction of new laws to combat age discrimination in the workplace.

Why is it that so many people in their 50s and 60s are without work?

These stereotypes have led to many employers seeing older candidates as only good for 'being there' jobs such as door people or receptionists
Hilary Metcalfe, NIESR

"It's largely a mix of people being discouraged through ageism and others unable to work due to ill health," Hilary Metcalfe, senior research fellow at National institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), said.

"Long-standing stereotypes lie behind the ageism problem."

Typical stereotypes of older workers include inability to adapt to new technology, lacking creativity and being inflexible, hard to train and too cautious for the cut and thrust of modern business.

On the upside - and it's not much of one - older workers are seen by firms as more reliable than their younger counterparts.

"These stereotypes have led to many employers seeing older candidates as only good for 'being there' jobs such as door people or receptionists. Relatively low paid and unskilled," Ms Metcalfe added.

Discrimination

It seems ageism is at its most acute in newer industries; where instead of life beginning at 40, careers can come to a juddering halt.

"Media, advertising and IT - the newer the industry, the more likely to discriminate," Ms Metcalfe said.

In addition, as far as job-seeking goes, younger workers often have a trump card compared to their older counterparts - more academic qualifications.

"Around 6% of people went to university in the 1970s, but now it is 40%," Steve Williams, head of equality services at ACAS, said.

"Therefore, any firm specifying that a recruit must be a graduate could be considered to be discriminating on the grounds of age because they are instantly targeting the young.

"Ask for appropriate qualifications by all means but there has to be some trade-off with relevant experience," Mr Williams added.

Culture change

Pension funds were used by both the private and public sectors to restructure the age of the workforce
Steve Williams, Acas

It was all so different 30 years ago.

Back in the early 1970s, nine out of 10 men over the age of 50 were employed.

Many of these workers were in blue-collar industrial jobs - the very jobs that disappeared over the next two decades as British industry shrank.

But the cull of older workers, which started in blue-collar industries in the 1970s, spread into white-collar occupations over the next two decades.

"A culture sprang up of people taking redundancy and early retirement in their 50s," Mr Williams said.

"Pension funds were used by both the private and public sectors to restructure the age of the workforce...being young equated with being an asset."

Anyone who can remember the 1980s and early 1990s can recall in the lexicon of the time that industry was meant to get "lean" and "fit" in order to compete and survive.

For "lean" and "fit" you could easily transpose "young" or "vigorous".

Youth therefore equalled competitiveness. By promoting fresh faces, UK business could stand tall once again after the economic torpor of the 1970s.

But getting rid of so many older workers could have unforeseen consequences.

"The thought seemed to be that these workers had their chance and it was time for them to move on," Ms Metcalfe said.

"Interestingly, as the economy improved in the 1990s, many of these firms and organisations found that they had too few experienced staff, there was a real skill shortage but the reaction wasn't to significantly reintroduce older workers."

If they can't find work at all then there is often an serious impact on the individual's mental well-being
Lucy Anderson, TUC

Devastating

As for those shown the door, the effects could be devastating.

"Age is the most significant way that people are discriminated against," Lucy Anderson, TUC senior policy officer, told BBC News.

"In managerial and professional jobs, it is very hard to get back if you are made redundant in your 40s and beyond.

"People are downgraded or lose job security by having to take freelance work. If they can't find work at all then there is often a serious impact on the individual's mental well being," Ms Anderson added.

Ageism, it seems, does not just apply to hiring and firing but also in access to training.

"Many workplaces have their own training programmes, ostensibly open to any age, yet they tend to be targeted at younger workers," Mr Williams said.

"Employers seem relaxed about this but it is amazing that some subscribe to the stereotype that older workers can't adapt yet they don't make an effort to train them.

A graph
In the past decade there has been a slight rise in employment rates

"The fact of the matter is that organisations are wasting enormous amount of talents and skill...ageism amounts to marginalisation and harassment," he added.

New rules

On 1 October new rules come into force effectively banning age discrimination in the workplace applying to staff under age 65.

No longer will firms be able to deny an interview, refuse a job offer, deny training or sack someone under 65 on the grounds of age.

Experts have said that the rules will not lead to revolution overnight, reversing at a stroke the decline in workplace participation amongst the over 50s.

Instead a slow cultural change is on the cards.

"The benefits to the wider economy of increasing workplace participation to 80% of over 50s could be enormous. It will help us pay for our pensions for a start," Ms Anderson said.

This is borne out by the findings of the government's own Pensions Commission which said that a later state pension age and boosting private saving would only solve the pensions crisis if more people could work for longer.

And the knowledge gained from having more older people in the workforce could also boost UK competitiveness, experts say.

"Keep older workers in the mainstream, apply their learning to the way the organisation is going and you can learn from past mistakes without having to constantly reinvent the wheel," Mr Williams said.

"Perhaps, this will go a long way to undermining the negative stereotypes."




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