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25 November 2021

Despite many people living longer and healthier lives than their parents, and grandparents, and more older workers in the workforce than ever before, age discrimination remains an issue for many working in the UK. Finding and keeping a job remains a problem for the 50s and over despite legislation being in place to tackle this. The benefits of an age diverse workforce cannot be overstated, yet many employers, consciously or unconsciously, are failing to take advantage of this.

Prior to the pandemic, an emerging trend of more older workers was developing well. However, that was brought abruptly to an end with the introduction of furlough, with the over 50s making up a disproportionate amount of the numbers furloughed or made redundant. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that only one third of workers 50 and over who lost their jobs during the pandemic were able to find new employment within 6 months.

It would seem that this group have limited faith in their ability to find employment, too. Legal and General Retail Retirement and the Centre for Economics and Business conducted research with over 50s jobseekers. A staggering 52% of them believed they were less likely to receive offers of employment. They also reported that there is a perception amongst employers that those in this category are unlikely to stay long term, overqualified, more expensive and will lack the skills of the younger generations.

Whilst protection under the Equality Act is in place, the realities of the situation have been exposed by the statistics from furlough and job losses during the pandemic. Alone amongst the protected characteristics identified in the act, age discrimination is the only one that comes with the ability to objectively justify direct discrimination. That means, as long as they can justify it on an objective basis, employers can make decisions that have a discriminatory effect on older workers. This inherent bias built into the legislation can give a green light to policies that negatively impact older workers and waters down the impact of the legislation in place.

A recent example of this was Pitcher v University of Oxford. For the majority of employers, retirement is not possible. We no longer have the ‘duty to consider’ requests to keep working, it is the default position. However in this case, a compulsory retirement age of 68 was allowed, on the basis that it met the legitimate aim of succession planning, in a proportionate way (as many of those who had retired said they would not have done so).

Whilst the legislation may not be as supportive for older workers as for other protected characteristics, employers are still encouraged to consider the benefits of employing older people, and adopting a culture of inclusivity and diversity that embraces workers of all ages.

Further information

Our resource on age discrimination

Our equality and diversity policy

Our workplace scenario