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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 10:20 GMT
Work until you're 72?
Will employers keep on elderly workers?
Today's twentysomethings will have to work until they are 72 to ensure a decent pension - but will the workplace of the future be welcoming to ageing employees?

"Firms take people on in their 20s, burn them out in their 30s and chuck them out in their 40s or early 50s," said one Whitehall official, frustrated by the UK's ageist work culture.

Hardly a heartening assessment for today's 25-year-olds, who shouldn't plan to pick up their gold retirement watches until 2049 if they want to avoid a poverty-stricken old age.

Is the sell-by date outdated?
BBC analysis suggests that only by toiling until the age of 72 will the current crop of young workers be able to save enough to ensure a pension equal to two-thirds of their final salary.

But will employers be willing to keep on this legion of superannuated savers?

While the current age for state pension eligibility - long dependent on gender - is to be harmonised at 65, many workers fly the employment market long before they're entitled to a pension book.

More than two million Britons aged between 50 and 65 are not working, prompting the government to seek tax penalties to keep those tempted by early retirement hard at the coalface instead.

Age's old problem

But who can blame those seeking to retreat from a work culture that is hostile to their years of experience?

A third of those aged 51 to 64 said they have been discriminated against in employment because of their age, according to a recent UK survey.

Companies have long been keen to rid themselves of older workers they view as "expensive" - thanks to pension payments and wages bumped up by seniority - says University of Surrey sociologist Dr Kate Davidson.

Are we forgetting the value of age?
Losing such expenses from the books can help a firm boost profits in the short-term, particularly when economic times are hard. However, the loss of experience can have hidden long-term costs.

"What we need is a movement to return these lost skills to the workplace," says Dr Davidson.

Sadly, the UK's work culture still labours under a number of misconceptions about the abilities of older workers, according to Age Concern.

"There is the common, and mistaken, assumption that older people are slower to adopt new technology and more resistant to changes in work practises," says the campaign group's Sophie Howells.

Grey area

Signs of aging are even taken as indicators of character flaws according to a recent US business survey. Grey hair made workers appear less capable and less energetic. Oddly, it also marked out older workers as being more narrow-minded.

Even without "snow on the roof" or wrinkles, workers can fall foul of ageism thanks to the date of birth entered in their personnel folder. Some firms automatically "define an older worker as a 'woman over 35' and 'a man over 42'," found the Employers Forum on Age.

Keep your job, lose the grey?
While some people will be bitterly disappointed not to be able to enjoy an early retirement, Dr Davidson says working into your 70s can potentially offer many positive benefits.

"Our society puts great stock in productivity, and people define their value though their work or trade. Retirement can rob them of their self-esteem and sense of usefulness."

Some may even see 72 as a premature age at which to retire to the potting shed or bowling green.

One UK professor resented being asked to relinquish the last of his university duties at 80.

"For the first time in my life I'm unemployed," he confided to a colleague. "Now I'm on the scrap heap."

See also:

26 Feb 02 | Business
Can you afford to retire?
15 Jan 02 | Business
Ageism at work 'still rife'
19 Sep 00 | UK
Not the retiring kind?
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