Age discrimination is rife in the UK. Companies either exclude people for being too old and 'past it' or too young and 'inexperienced'.
Many people are refused the opportunity to show whether or not they have what it takes to do the job. Yet there is no law or a code of practice to prevent this type of discrimination taking place in the Britain, despite the fact that, by the year 2000, one person in three will be over 40.
How can this make sense?
More than 55% of businesses blatantly use age as a recruitment criterion, according to a recent survey by the Institute of Management. The same study also revealed that 85% of people questioned believed age should be treated as an equal opportunity issue. Businesses that shut out employees because they are too old fail to see that 'they add value to the business', says a spokesman for B&Q, a company that already operates a policy of non-discrimination.
In 1989, the DIY retailer set up a store staffed solely by the over-fifties.
Ageism is a problem in need of an urgent solution. So what is the best way out of the blind alley that has trapped so many companies. The Government argues for a voluntary code and this is supported by many leading advisory groups. Self-regulation, they say, is preferable to the blunt instrument that is the law.
Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) policy adviser Angela Edward points out that the evidence from other countries (such as France or America) is that laws in this area do not work. She believes legislation is an ineffective deterrent but businesses might respond if they see how counterproductive it is to exclude older workers. 'A speeding law does not stop people speeding but, if they understand the dangers of driving too fast, they will be less likely to do it,' she says. 'It is the same in business. If one organisation is seen to be making more money because of their policy on age, others will soon follow.'
Support for a code to stamp out age discrimination is growing as many organisations discover the benefits of a balanced workforce. Two years ago, People Management, the IPD's magazine, started refusing to publish job adverts that included age limits. It has not lost any revenue as a result of this. With the Carnegie Third Age Programme, it has set up a policy on age limits in recruitment, which has been signed by numerous recruitment agencies. As well as B&Q, other high-street names have adopted a policy of non-discrimination, including J Sainsbury's, The Littlewoods Organisation and WH Smith. 'Turnover rates for older workers are significantly lower,' says a representative at WH Smith. Since 1% of staff turnover costs the company an estimated £800,000, employing older workers can lead to worthwhile savings.
'It is a question of appealing to employers,' says Mark Hastings, a policy adviser at the Institute of Management. 'Companies that have a well-balanced workforce achieve better results.'
While the Government wants to avoid falling into the Labour trap of setting up reams of red tape, British organisations should seize the moment and take voluntary action. If they don't, legislation is sure to follow. There is already a case before the courts that may usher in regulation from Europe.
Industry needs to show it can eradicate a practice that not only robs one-third of the population of employment opportunities but also deprives Britain of the experience, skills and judgment of some 18 million people.