Two weeks ago The Age and Employment Network (TAEN) published the latest edition of its 50+ Job Seekers Survey. Office of National Statistics figures show more older people in work and there is a general feeling that older people are doing reasonably well in the labour market.

However, the sad fact is that embedded labour market disadvantages and ingrained ageist attitudes bar hundreds of thousands of older people from returning to work. It is clear that older job seekers struggle harder than most – they have the biggest problem of long term unemployment for example.

Why should older people want work? It is obvious really. 89 per cent of older people wanting to work gave financial need as a reason. 71 per cent mentioned a desire to feel valued and 54 per cent said that the social interaction work brings was important to them. Both age and gender were distinguishing factors in reasons for working, with men under 60 being more likely to say they wanted work for financial reasons while both men and women under 60 were more likely than older (60 plus) men and women to say they wanted work for social interaction. Men and women were in broad agreement on the importance of work as giving a sense worth – a reason chosen equally by our younger (i.e. below 60) as well as older (above 60) respondents.

With regard to types of work sought, women were more likely to express a preference for flexible hours or for part time working and were less likely to want full time work. People who had last worked in administrative and secretarial roles (mainly women) were more likely to want to work part time – 71 per cent expressed this preference, compared with only 40 per cent of those in skilled trades (mainly men).

Many are ‘worried’ or ‘desperate’ about not working. The younger respondents (50 to 54 year olds) were more likely to be “desperate” to get a job.

Obstacles in the labour market range across a number of factors. Many identify adverse attitudes by recruiters, mismatches of their own skills or qualifications with employers’ needs and the national focus on youth unemployment as being among the reasons for their problems.

47 per cent of our older job seekers believed that the law banning age discrimination had not had any benefit at all. One respondent, a former managing director seeking work, commented:

“Age discrimination is rife in my view. Employers can work out your age with ease.”

Some respondents even volunteered the view that repeal of the default retirement age had made it harder to get work!  One commented:

“Given that compulsory retirement is now not available I suspect that many employers are reluctant to recruit older staff who, they fear, may present motivational  and even attendance issues in future.”

Clearly we do not have to agree with everything our survey members have to say on this point –  blaming the end of the default retirement age on their current problems may be misreading the problem. However, it is perfectly possible that whilst the aggregate effect of ending mandatory retirement has been beneficial to those who wish to remain in existing jobs, it has also compounded the problems of older job seekers.

In summary, we have a labour market that is ambivalent towards older people. Employers are obliged to allow them to work longer in the same jobs if they wish but they draw the line at offering them new jobs, believing they may want to work for ever.

There is significant evidence that some recruitment agencies connive with employers and fail to challenge ageist attitudes. It seems clear that the law is being flouted with impunity and there is a presumption that, ‘of course employers will discriminate by age if they wish to so.’ The eradication of age discrimination in employment is a far from complete.

The time has surely come to assess the effectiveness of the law against age discrimination in recruitment. How and in what ways could we strengthen it’s application at the point of recruitment, so that it is truly effective? Given that employers can discriminate with impunity, perhaps we need stronger ways to deny them information about individuals’ ages?  Why should employers be able to legally ask questions about age or offer application forms which allow inferences to be drawn?

Why should it be necessary to put down dates of qualifications on CVs? Or is it just pandering to absurd ageist attitudes to try to eradicate ageism by hiding our ages behind fig leaves? One thing is for sure, the recruitment processes of employers, the people taking hiring decisions in organisations and the recruitment agencies that support the search and selection process, are ageist to the core. It is an intolerable abuse and flouting of the law on a massive scale.

The reality is that the recruitment industry is a vast and wealthy operation supporting and conniving in the insidious weeding out of people by age. It presents the thus age vetted candidates to employers and stands back innocently denying all knowledge of the process – and no one has the power to do anything about it.

Numerous examples of discrimination against older women in the media involving women like Miriam O’Reilly, Selina Scott, Anna Ford, Moira Stewart and Arlene Phillips, demonstrate the gendered prism through which ageism is sometimes refracted. There can be little doubt that the “double whammy” of age and gender discrimination forces many older women job seekers to accept jobs which are below their capability and earnings potential.


Posted on March 26th, 2013 by Chris Ball filed under: Blog, Work